Jason Isbell was sitting backstage in Memphis in September, watching the Georgia/South Carolina football game on his laptop when a rock song with a killer riff started playing as CBS went to commercial. “At first I thought, ‘That sounds great, what is that?’” says the four-time Grammy winner. “And then it occurred to me, ‘That’s me! That’s the old band.’ ” The song in question: 2004’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” by Drive-By Truckers, Isbell’s former band.
Isbell’s Truckers era is just one period of the singer-songwriter’s distant and recent past that he’s been revisiting over the last year: Several songs from Weathervanes, his stunning new record with the 400 Unit, make up what he refers to as “the old assignment,” songs inspired by the type of riff-heavy, character-based storytelling for which the Truckers are known.
Isbell, 44, has reflected on his mid-thirties with the reissue of his fourth album, the 2013 opus Southeastern. And with this year’s release of Running With Our Eyes Closed, an HBO documentary by photographer and director Sam Jones, fans got a painfully intimate glimpse into a difficult patch in Isbell’s personal life during the sessions for his 2020 album, Reunions.
“If you want people to feel like you understand them,” he says, “you’ve got to let them know who you are.”
Weathervanes is the first time since your 2009 self-titled record that you’ve worked with drummer Matt Pence, who added production to several songs.
There are a lot of things we did on the self-titled record that I thought worked really well. I just didn’t have the commitment to the craft at that point because I was still spending a lot of time in the bar and not as much time in the chair. Matt gets sounds that are organic but unexpected. To me, that’s really fun. I like to do things sonically that could have been done 40 or 50 years ago but just weren’t. If I’m playing an old Les Paul through an old Fender amp, it’s something that could have happened long before I was born, but I think it took people a while to realize the potential in those instruments. I try to make things work in a way that’s a little different from how they were designed, and Matt does a really good job of pulling that off in the studio.
Much of your personal life and your marriage to Amanda Shires is on display in Sam Jones’ documentary. Going into the filming, did you have any sense of what was going to be captured on film?
I knew it would be intrusive and irritating and there would be moments when we wished the cameras weren’t there. But I’m glad it happened the way it did. When you try to be as honest with people as possible, there is a concession that you have to make. You have to allow more of your personal life to be made public, but I think that works for me. For the people watching the movie or listening to the records, it’s a stronger connection than would just be built through entertainment, and I need that. If I were just an entertainer — not that that’s a lesser position — but if I just tried to make people forget about their worries for a little while, I don’t know that I would be satisfied with my life. I don’t want to trick anybody.
You reshot the cover of Southeastern for the reissue of that album. What do you see when you look at the 34-year-old version of yourself on the original cover?
You can see that I’m not anywhere near as confident as what I’m trying to project. I was newly sober and navigating a set of priorities I had never accepted before. If I’m with [my daughter] Mercy and I’m putting her down for bed and she thinks there’s a monster in her closet, we just get up and we look in the closet. At that point, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I was afraid. I didn’t know how my life was going to go, and I didn’t know if I was going to be happy. Looking back, I’m extremely proud of that record, but I’m more proud of getting up out of bed and looking in the closet, because that’s sort of what I was doing at that point in time: I was working up the courage to look into those closed rooms and see what was in there for real.
Is there anything you wish you had known then that you know now?
The value of vintage guitars.
This story is part of Rolling Stone’s fourth annual Grammy Preview issue, released ahead of the start of first-round voting on Oct. 13th. We featured SZA on the cover, spoke to some of the year’s biggest artists about the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February, made our best predictions for the nominees in the top categories, and more, providing a full guide of what to watch for in the lead-up to the 2024 awards.