Grammy winner Jason Isbell was up for two more Grammy awards when I spoke with the Nashville by way of Alabama singer-songwriter and guitarist a few days before Sunday’s ceremonies in New York City.
As it turned out, Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, which includes his wife, singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, took home the 2018 Grammy for best Americana album for “The Nashville Sound.” And Isbell also won for best American roots song for “If We Were Vampires.” The late Gregg Allman was also nominated for both awards, and as AJC music writer Melissa Ruggieri reported from backstage at the Grammys, a respectful Isbell said Allman’s influence was “huge on me. … Some of the first music I learned to play were Allman Brothers records.”
Here was the discussion before Isbell’s latest Grammy wins:
Q: You’re doing two nights at the Fox, Feb. 8-9. Is the Fox a good place to play for a couple of nights?
A: Oh yeah. It’s one of the best, really. It’s sort of the standard for us, as far as theaters of that size. There are a few scattered across the country that are similar, but it doesn’t get much better for us than the Fox. That’s about as big a room as we wanna play, normally, because if you get any bigger, you start having sound issues. And it’s just ornate and beautiful and in a nice town.
Q: Not to give away any of your hangouts, but are there places you look forward to revisiting when you’re in Atlanta?
A: My friend Sean Brock has a Mexican place, Minero, in Ponce City Market that I like. Sean cooked at our wedding and he’s a good dude, so I’ll probably eat some food there while I’m in town. But I try to find something new every time I’m there. I used to go to Antico Pizza a whole lot, so I may go back there.
Q: James McMurtry, who is opening the show at the Fox, does what you and a few others like Richard Thompson can do. You all have really distinctive voices and points of view as singer-songwriters, but you’re also great guitar players. Did all of those things come naturally?
A: I started off as a guitar player. I don’t know if that’s the case with James and Richard, but I imagine it probably is. You can start playing the guitar really early. But you can’t get too far into songwriting when you’re 7 or 8 years old. There’s not a whole lot to write a song about at that age.
Q: But music was always a big part of your life?
A: I was really obsessed with music from an early age. My grandparents and my aunts and uncles were playing music, and so it was natural for me. It’s really hard to play the guitar. I spent eight to 10 hours a day for years and years playing guitar, so it feels natural at this point, but it certainly wasn’t when I started out.
Q: And what about songwriting?
A: I think a lot of songwriters don’t put that amount of time into writing. And some of them don’t have to. Some of the first songs that Townes Van Zandt wrote were beautiful songs. For the rest of us, who aren’t Townes Van Zandt, you probably have to write a thousand songs before you get a good one.
Q: What’s your take on being nominated for and winning Grammy Awards?
A: Obviously, if I were the person who sat down and chose all the Grammy nominations, it wouldn’t go the same way. I think that’s the way it is for everybody. It’s something I don’t know that I ever expected when I started out in this business. But it’s a lot of fun, especially this year because the band gets to go. We’ll all get to dress up and see some actual celebrities.
Q: To my mind, “The Nashville Sound” marks the sound of Nashville today, which is many other things besides country, right?
A: It’s very obvious that the city’s musical tastes have diversified, and they have to for Nashville to stay relevant as a music town. I think that’s happening pretty quickly. You’ve got every possible type of music you can imagine now.
Q: It also seems that many of the songs on “The Nashville Sound” are more outward looking.
A: Probably so. You have to be personal to go with those issues, and talk about how they relate to you. You have to tell your own story to establish any kind of credibility. You can’t just start pointing fingers. So I tried to work from an internal place, and still discuss the things that were relevant to me culturally.
Q: “White Man’s World” is certainly a powerful song in that way.
A: It was not necessarily an easy song to write or to record or put out in the world. But I needed it, myself, in order to really explain and situate my role in the changing of beliefs, and what culture means right now, and what music does for that. It was important to me to explain those things to myself. And if I could explain them to myself, maybe other people could understand, too.
Q: Surprisingly, it sort of anticipates the #MeToo movement in some ways, too.
A: You see it firsthand if you’re with somebody who’s trying to make a career for herself and facing all these roadblocks that wouldn’t be there if she was a man. It’s very obvious to me after watching my wife navigate the music business that we still have a long, long way to go.
Q: “If We Were Vampires” is an utterly moving song about the preciousness of life and the specter of death, and it manages to feel both deeply personal and completely universal.
A: You’re busy dying no matter what else you’re doing. It’s happening to all of us, obviously. But I don’t think there would be any motivation to live if it wasn’t. That was the point I was trying to make. It’s a sad thing. It’s a terrible thing. But at the same time, it’s the only motivation we have to get out of bed in the morning, or share ourselves with anybody else, or try to build any kind of life, or do anything that’s good.
Q: On the lighter side, are you still a Braves fan?
A: Oh yeah. I don’t live in Atlanta. And it’s a shame that folks downtown aren’t going to have more options to go see baseball games. But new stadiums are important right now, if you want to keep up. And all the new stadiums, with the exception of the Marlins’, are really beautiful and tasteful, and well done, so I appreciate what the Braves did there.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
With special guest James McMurtry. 8 p.m. Feb. 8-9. Tickets: $47.70-$97.75. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.
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