“I wanted to make the music I wanted to make, and have enough money to buy cool guitars”: Jason Isbell
The guitarist talks Bursts, how Mark Knopfler is like an astronaut, the power of doing it yourself, and why he’s always looking for that extra five horsepower.
Image: Alysse Gafkjen
Jason Isbell should have nothing left to prove. If you’d bagged a pair of Grammys and a spot in the Billboard top 10 album charts for each of your last two albums – 2014’s Something More Than Free and 2017’s The Nashville Sound – while building an army of remarkably passionate fans, you’d be feeling pretty confident in your own brilliance, right?
But for the 41-year-old former Drive-By Trucker, the picture was very different as he attempted to craft seventh solo album, Reunions. In fact, so tortured was its gestation, Isbell admits it even strained his relationship with his wife, fellow musician Amanda Shires. Nothing left to prove? Hardly.
“I think it was the opposite,” Isbell says with a soft Alabama drawl. “That was causing pressure for me. I still don’t think that I’ve done my absolute best work. I guess some of it is probably trying to prove to other people that it wasn’t a fluke, and I don’t know when that stops. When do you start thinking, ‘Okay, it’s not a fluke’? I don’t know!
“I just didn’t want to let everybody down. I didn’t want to come into a project without having done my homework, without having strong songs and enough material to make a really strong album, and I didn’t want there to be any filler. And we don’t have a lot of casual fans – either they don’t listen to our music at all, or they pore over each individual lyric and sound. I like that, and I would rather it be that way, but it also does make you think, ‘Okay, I can’t get away with anything!”
Isbell might be the last person on earth who thinks this is still a fluke, but what’s less surprising is how forthright he is about his struggles making it. Part of what makes Isbell’s music so engaging is the unflinching and raw honesty he brings to his songs – whether he’s discussing his battles with alcoholism, or his relationship issues. It’s something that, even 13 years into his solo career, he still wrestles with.
“I always just wanted to be able to make the music that I wanted to make, and have enough money to buy cool guitars. And that’s pretty much it”
“I’m not necessarily comfortable with it!” he exclaims. “But one of the things that I was able to recognise early on was that I was good at being honest and that I was at my best when I was my most honest. It’s still a challenge for me to get over these ideas of public perception or privacy. Every time I write one of these songs I think, ‘I don’t know if I want to tell people about that!’ But I have a rule – if it feels like that, if it’s a challenge to reveal it, then I have to figure out a way to do it. I can’t throw that away, because that’s what I do best really – tell people the truth.”
This spirit of truth-telling clearly resonates with people on a profound level – as the man says, he doesn’t get many casual fans, and this passionate support continues to drive his success. You won’t often see Isbell’s music on the high-profile streaming playlists that are so crucial to an artist’s success in 2020, but Reunions still hit the US top 10 when it was released in May, something he attributes solely to the devotion of his fanbase.
“The record was at number nine on the Billboard charts in the States, but we sold twice as many as number one in terms of actual sales,” Isbell observes. “But I don’t look at that and think ‘Oh, man, we should be number one’ – I don’t give a shit! I think, man, people bought these fucking records with money – with real money – and that is awesome. And, I don’t have to give it all to a record label – this is great!”
Isbell has self-released all his music since 2013’s Southeastern, and he’s under no illusions that his decision to go it alone has been hugely impactful on the way his career has turned out.
“It enables me to do all of the things that I’m able to do, creatively,” he insists. “It just depends on what you want. If you want to be a celebrity, then then you probably shouldn’t start your own record label. But that was never one of my goals. If I wanted to be more famous I’d start a podcast or something. But this is all good with me – I’m happy that things are going the way that they’re going.
“I always just wanted to be able to make the music that I wanted to make, and have enough money to buy cool guitars. And that’s pretty much it. I wanted to be able to have a crew that was consistent and did a good job, and wanted to have a fairly comfortable place to live, and I wanted to be able to buy some ridiculous fucking guitars.
“Honestly, that’s been the best thing about selling my own records and owning my own publishing. Everybody’s like, ‘How the hell are you able to afford this guitar?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s because I’m not giving all my money to Columbia Records!’”
When he talks about “ridiculous fucking guitars” you know that there’s one guitar in particular that he’s talking about – the Redeye. Redeye is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, serial number #9-0891, owned for decades by Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King until his death in 2018, and named because of the distinctive patch of unfaded red burst above the neck pickup. In January 2019, Jason Isbell became the new custodian of the Redeye, but becoming a proud member of the ’59 Owners Club wasn’t hat Isbell had planned when he came home for Christmas in 2018.
“I wasn’t looking for one, and I always thought that I would never have one – because obviously, they are ridiculously expensive,” Isbell chuckles. “And I’ve got this 61 ES-335 that I’ve had for quite a few years – it’s a fantastic instrument that’ll hold its own with pretty much anything, so I always thought, ‘Ah I don’t need a Burst, I’ve got this guitar – this will do everything I want to do!’
“But then I was home for Christmas and New Year’s in 2018, and Christie Carter from Carter’s Vintage Guitars called me. Ed had passed away the previous August, and Sharon his wife had brought in a bunch of his guitars to sell through the shop. So she called and said, ‘Would you come in and demo some of these guitars for our website?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure I’d love to do that!’ So I went in and played the Sweet Home Alabama Strat, which was a ’73 or ’74 Strat, but then they had Redeye sitting on a stand next to it! So I said, ‘Is that the real guitar, or is that one of the Collector’s Choice reissues?’ And she’s like, ‘No, that’s the one!’ And I was SHOCKED!
“So I picked up and played it, and I just before I even plugged in, I just knew that I was done for. It just vibrated – it was really, really resonant all the way through the guitar, and it’s just so beautiful. I plugged it in and played it and… and I got lost on the way home… I stopped and got a bottle of water at a gas station and when I got home, it was still unopened… I couldn’t get to sleep at night, just thinking about that guitar.”
“It’s just always been the thing that I did when I didn’t have to do anything else. I never wanted to be a firefighter or an astronaut or anything – I just always wanted to play music. And who wouldn’t, you know?”
Anyone who’s been privileged enough to play a ’59 will likely recognise that feeling, but as with many of us, the six-figure price tag is always going to be a stumbling block to tonal nirvana… but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“Of course, it’s way out of my price range.” he laughs. “I call my accountant, and she’s like, ‘No, that’s a ridiculous idea!’ And hung up. So I call my manager and I was like, ‘Okay, I need you to find me enough private gigs this year so that I can pay for this guitar, and it won’t affect anybody but me – not my family, not my crew, nobody!’
“So I played a bunch of weird-ass birthday parties for Bitcoin people, and in conference rooms for Viacom: stuff like that! It was so strange, but it was well worth it – I’ll sit down with it just about every day and it’s just unreal.
“The first things I learned on electric guitar were those Skynyrd songs that Ed played on, and the early Skynyrd recordings happened in my hometown, so it was very much a special thing for me. Also, the fact that Ed was the outsider in the bunch – he was the hippy amidst all the rednecks – that appeals to me. Because I grew up in Alabama, and I felt like the hippy among the rednecks for most of my life!
So what happens when you become the owner of a Burst? Most of us would want to get some buddies ‘round and see what this thing can do – Isbell was no different, but when one of your buddies is Dave Cobb, Grammy-winning producer and current resident of Nashville’s RCA Studio A, it gives you some unique options…
“I got that guitar on New Year’s Day last year, and I called Dave immediately,” he recalls. “He was like, ‘Okay, meet me at the studio right now!’ So I drove over to RCA and he had all the rigs laid out. ‘Right, here’s Zeppelin II‘ and he’s got all these little Supros. ‘And here’s Zeppelin III…’ and they brought out the Plexi. And we just went through every single track – it was great, it was like we were 15 years old.”
The more time he spends with Redeye, however, the more he becomes aware that there’s something special and unquantifiable that makes those few hundred Bursts so special.
“Up until I got this guitar, I would have been one of those people who said, ‘Ah there are a lot of guitars that are that good.’” he admits. “And it is a ridiculous luxury, it is a crazy expensive item to have… but it’s the only thing that does that, and if you want to do that then that’s what you have to get!
“The Klon Centaur it’s probably five per cent better than everything else, and once you hear that five per cent, you’re fucked!”
“It’s probably a combination of the wood getting older naturally, and then I think I think there’s a lot going on with condensation in the tone pot. I think it increases the values of those capacitors, so you get more treble – because over the years, as water condenses it can increase the value of the resistance up to like sometimes 600 or 700k.
“But there’s something there that nobody’s really figured out how to replicate. Gibson made me a copy of Redeye that’s extremely close – it’s really, really good. But it just can’t do it you know? It’s like the Klon Centaur – it’s probably five per cent better than everything else, and once you hear that five per cent, you’re fucked! An [EHX] Soul Food with a JHS mod sounds great – almost as good as Klon Centaur… but it’s not quite as good, is it? And if you’re like me, you start obsessing over it: ‘Dammit, I wonder what I could do if I had that extra five horsepower?’
“There are things that that you can’t replicate, also. The Redeye is extremely even, there aren’t any dead spots, but there are still some places around the 14th or 15th fret where you get these overtones. And I’ve looked at every aspect of the setup, and I know that nothing is being accidentally vibrated by the string, it’s not the pickup covers, it’s not a hot fret, it’s not the bridge – but there’s something happening that’s causing another note in addition to the one that I’m playing. I’ve got no explanation for it. Yesterday I was playing a note up really high, went on about my business, and I could still hear that note! And I had muted the strings – there’s no way that should still be ringing out! These little magical things happen that I haven’t heard on other guitars – even great guitars.”
In case you hadn’t gathered from all that, Jason Isbell is a man that truly, deeply loves the guitar – when we ask him if his pandemic-enforced time at home has given him the chance to just play for fun a bit more, his response? “I’m always just playing for fun”. It’s an obsession that got its hooks in him early, all the way back to his days growing up in rural Northern Alabama.
“My grandad played, he was a Pentecostal preacher and he played in church and then played at home with the family, and my uncle also played – my dad’s brother,” Isbell explains. “Both of them started out teaching when I was probably six or seven years old, and I would play rhythm guitar with my granddad while he played fiddle, banjo or mandolin.
“I was in love with it from the start – I don’t know exactly why it spoke to me the way it did, but I never remember having to force myself to play it. It’s just always been the thing that I did when I didn’t have to do anything else. I never wanted to be a firefighter or an astronaut or anything – I just always wanted to play music. And who wouldn’t, you know?”
But despite growing up a short drive from Muscle Shoals and surrounded by the rich musical culture of the South, it was a guitar player from Gosforth who became a big influence on Jason’s playing – Mark Knopfler.
“Those Dire Straits songs were huge on the radio when I was a kid in the 80s,” he recalls. “That was something that really appealed to me because it was mainstream. How is this guy playing guitar in the style of Chet Atkins, and it’s on MTV?! How is that possible? It doesn’t seem like that could ever happen. So I was really drawn to that, from my earliest days as a guitar player, because it was something that was rooted in a traditional type of playing, but was finding real mainstream success. I don’t think anybody else pulled off anything even close to that – there were a lot of great guitar players in those days, but they didn’t sound like Chet Atkins!
“To play that way you have to have nerves of steel. any decent guitar player can play through a really loud Marshall with a Les Paul and make something cool. But to play a Strat through a Vibrolux, clean, in the out of phase position with your fingers at the fuckin’ US Festival or something… is insane – that’s like astronaut-level! There is nowhere to hide, it’s amazing – you’ve got to be very confident in where you’re about to put your hands.”
Given Isbell’s ebulliently professed love of Knopfler and David Gilmour, it’s appropriate then that despite the ever-distracting charms of Redeye and his almost equally beloved ’53 Goldtop, Reunions relies heavily on his 1960 Strat for many of the album’s key tones.
“This was definitely a Strat record,” he affirms. “Y’know, we used both the Les Pauls and all kinds of stuff, but the Strat was what we ended up going back to more than anything else. We did something that I thought was really cool with that guitar on Running With Our Eyes Closed, and River and the solo on Only Children. We split the signal between my ’64 Vibroverb, which is a 1×15, and a Roland Jazz Chorus 120-watt. And we got this really clean, midrangey, sparkly Strat tone in the out of phase position that is just super high-fidelity. That’s what Dave was aiming for on this record, and I think we got it with that combination – we used that a lot.”
Isbell’s relationship with Cobb dates back to Southeastern, the moment where everything changed for him as an artist. Cobb’s career has followed a similarly steep curve that has seen him become the most in-demand producer in Nashville, but the friendship and mutual understanding that the pair developed back in 2013 remains a key part of the creative process today.
“Dave has really great instincts, more so than anybody else I’ve ever worked with,” Isbell explains. “He can hear a song for the first time and just know what needs to be done to it. And on top of that, he’s really easy to be around. And he’s there every day, which puts them way ahead of most of the big names – most of the guys that you hear about us as ‘famous producers’ don’t even fucking show up, they go play golf or something while the band is in there working.
“If I wanted to be more famous I’d start a podcast or something. But this is all good with me – I’m happy that things are going the way that they’re going”
“Dave is not that way – he comes in and he doesn’t sit behind the glass, he gets in the room with you while you’re tracking. The engineers are pushing buttons on the desk and Dave is out on the floor playing the shaker, or an acoustic guitar or something! It fits the way that we work really well, because it strips away the regimented condescension of making an album with a producer.”
Given his penchant for Bursts and Klons its no surprise that very little of Isbell’s rig could be described as factory-fresh, a notable exception being of a pair of Magnatones that he pairs alongside his ’68 Bassman and a ’54 Vibroverb to offer “pretty much everything that I want a guitar amp tone to do”. For acoustics on Reunions however, he turned away from his much-loved Martin D-18 signature models.
“I wound up using a 1946 J-45 for most of the acoustic tracks,” he explains. “I got it about a month before we started recording, and it was something that was just a little bit different for me. It’s still a big, full-bodied acoustic guitar, but it just sounds a little bit different to what we’d done in the past. It’s the one year where they had the script logo but they had stopped using the banner on the headstock, so it’s pretty much just like a banner J-45 but not quite as expensive!”
So far, so vintage, but when it comes to his effects choice, however, Jason relied on a mix of the classic and the bleeding-edge modern, with his trusty Analog Man Sun Lion in the former category.
“I have the first one that he made!” Isbell exclaims. “I didn’t realise, as it was a gift from Marc Ford many years ago when we were touring with the Black Crowes. Marc was like, ‘Here, take this – if you like it, you can keep it.’ And then years later I sent it back to Mike [Piera] for some repairs and he was like, ‘Oh hey, this is the first one of these I made…’ And I was like, holy shit, I bet Marc didn’t know that!
“I also used a lot of Chase Bliss stuff – they’re weird, but once you take the time to understand how to operate them they’re just amazing pedals. Those guys are geniuses, and they’re really making stuff that no-one else has done. They’ve got an EQ pedal now that has flying faders [the Preamp Mk II – Ed], it’s really, really cool! One of those pedals is like a laptop for me – I know I’m only using it for like, seven per cent of its total capability but it’s a good seven per cent!”
Back in February, Isbell celebrated eight years of sobriety. Following an acrimonious departure from the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, he spent five years attempting to make a solo career take off while his drinking and substance issues worsened. Then, in 2012, an intervention by Shires, his manager Traci Thomas and Ryan Adams led to Isbell checking himself into a Nashville rehab facility at 33 – he emerged two weeks later with his life on a much different path. A year later would come Southeastern, the record where the potential of his huge talent was finally realised, and where he sang on opening track, Cover Me Up, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time”.
But the world of guitar and particularly live music is so heavily intertwined with alcohol, as our chat draws to a close, we wonder if he was ever concerned about that cliche of getting clean somehow robbing him of his musical mojo?
“Yeah, I thought that was a thing, but really I just wanted to keep drinking,” he says ruefully. “It’s tricky that way because it makes you think that you’re in danger of losing some kind of creativity, or an ability to play or perform – but none of those things are a real threat. I think I knew that but I just wanted to keep drinking – so I thought, ‘Well here’s another excuse for me to not quit.’
“Obviously, people think, ‘Well I’ll have a couple of drinks before the show and it’ll calm my nerves’ – but you can warm up! You can sit backstage and play the guitar for 20 minutes and it has the same effect – your hands stop not listening to you. Everything that I was able to do before, I can do a whole lot better now. It was something that I worried about before I got sober, but once I saw behind the curtain I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I was bullshitting myself, of course!’”
Reunions is out now on Southeastern Records.