Jason Isbell is finally back out on the road, playing songs from Reunions, the 2020 album that again demonstrated he stands alone among his Nashville contemporaries as a narrative songwriter whose finely crafted tunes are filled with cut-to-the-quick details that convey a sense of life as it’s lived.
Isbell’s return with his band the 400 Unit, who will back him at the Met Philadelphia on Wednesday on a stellar bill with Canadian songwriter Kathleen Edwards, comes at a time of concert business concern, as the delta variant of the coronavirus leads to rising case numbers across the United States.
In his shows and on Twitter — where he maintains a sharp, witty, sometimes combative presence — the singer-guitarist has been an outspoken early advocate for tougher COVID-19 protocols, vowing to perform only for fans who show proof of vaccination or a negative test. Masks are also encouraged at his shows.
This month, he did an online interview with Anthony Fauci seeking safe concert tips, joking he was hoping the immunologist would recommend fans stop shouting out requests at shows.
The former Drive-By Trucker spoke from his home outside Nashville, where he lives with his wife, musician Amanda Shires, and their 6-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose, who went viral on TikTok singing alternate lyrics to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” last week.
Shires, who frequently tours with Isbell, is not on the Philly date after having what he termed “an emergency procedure” in Texas last month. “She’s at home healing up,” he said. “Everything’s gonna be alright.”
Isbell spoke to The Inquirer about returning to touring after a year and a half at home, how he chose the opening acts for his upcoming eight-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and how country star Morgan Wallen brought one of his songs to a new audience, for better or worse.
How’s it feel to be back playing shows?
Great. Playing is great, and being around the band and the crew. I’ve got my daughter with me, and she’s had a really good time being out of the house and going to zoos and museums and doing fun stuff. It’s a little different. But I’m just glad to be able to work.
After waiting so long, is it unnerving to have to contend with new uncertainty?
What I enjoy the most is playing the songs with my band, being able to hear myself, having good gear, being able to play exactly what I want when I want to play it. Those are the things that matter the most to me. Enjoying the people that I’m making music with and the people that I work with.
The people who are there seem to be very, very happy to be at a show, and even happier to be at a show where they feel at least a little bit safer than they would if there were no restrictions in place.
You were early in making your shows vax or negative-test only. How’d you make that decision?
I was worried about people getting sick at the shows, and it was taking away from my ability to enjoy it. That’s really it. All I had to do was make that decision and that worry was somewhat abated. Not completely, but I can sleep now and not spend the whole set wondering if somebody’s going to get sick and go home and die from this.
There’s probably 10% less people [at concerts] than there were before COVID. But they make up for it, honestly, making more noise and buying more merch and having a better time. People are psyched. A Monday night feels like a Saturday night.
Do people also want to support you?
Probably. I think so. I’ve benefited a lot from people rooting for me in my career. First when I got sober and got my act straightened out and then when I started talking about it in the songs. And now that I speak my mind in public I think if people don’t hate my guts they feel like they want to support me and come to my shows.
.I’m not taking things for granted on stage, and they’re not taking things for granted in the audience. I think a lot of good and a lot of positive memories will be made in this particular strange time.
I wanted to highlight people that I know and people whose music I like that for some reason or another — in this case because they’re women and Black — have been steered out of the public eye.
I think there is a real system in place in the music business that keeps Black women from being heard from. ... My only consideration was: Who do I want to open for me? I felt like this would be the perfect time to give some of those folks a platform. Plus, I just like the way all those people make music, and I like to show up early and watch their set.
You’re an actor now. You played yourself on Billions last week, and you just finished filming the Martin Scorsese movie Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma. What’s that been like?
The movie experience was incredible because I feel like I probably won’t ever be a part of anything else like it. There were like 500 people working on this movie. It’s a $200 million art film. It’s just unbelievable to see it go down.
I’m not going to go into acting now full time or anything like that, but just to help Scorsese tell this story ... I enjoyed it. Plus it was nice to not have the pressure of doing a project that was mine.
That line in “Cover Me Up,” about getting sober — “I swore off that stuff, forever this time” — gets a big cheer live. When you wrote it, were you certain it would be forever? Or was saying it out loud a promise to yourself?
Some of both, I would guess. But when I make a decision, I normally stand by it. I guess it’s sort of existentialist in a way because I just really choose a meaning of life and stick with that.
Was that true even when you were drinking?
Yeah, it was, honestly. I had made a decision to be a drunk, and boy I really stuck with it. Until I couldn’t anymore. Until my decision to survive outweighed my decision to be a drunk.
A conscious decision? Or unconscious?
I think conscious, really, honestly now that I look back on it. I think I felt like it somehow legitimized my efforts as a troubadour, a singer-songwriter, a rock and roll musician.
I searched for Jason Isbell, “Cover Me Up,” and it came up as a song by Morgan Wallen [the country star who covered it in 2018, and was recorded on video using a racial slur this past February].
Oh, really? Actually, I had this moment last weekend at a festival and there were probably 15-20,000 people, and we were on right before Dave Matthews. ... We got to that song, and it hit me that everybody in that audience knew it. It was an amazing feeling because it was surprising. I never expected to have a song that found its way into the mainstream like that one.
So it was strange, but it was really beautiful to me because I also I felt like I had carried this baby through the desert, and I can still sing it, but to feel like I still own that song has taken some work.
And of course what happened with Morgan, ... it did contribute to a conversation that I was trying to have with people who weren’t listening to me before he sang that song. I got to actually get their ear for a second. First I got it through the song, and then I got it when I donated [his songwriting royalties] to the NAACP. I’m sure it pissed some of those people off, but that was OK because I wanted to piss some of them off.
It’s interesting that it’s a song that’s so personal that found a new audience.
Yes. It’s a beautiful thing. Because the more personal you are, the more people feel like you know a secret about them. Everybody has been in love and everybody’s had their heart broken. So there’s no big deal when you hear a songwriter say, ‘My heart is broken.’ Well of course it is: everybody’s ... heart is broken. But if you put something very specific in there, people are gonna hear it and go, “Oh, that’s me. That’s my story.”
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit with Kathleen Edwards at the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St., at 8 p.m. Wednesday. $39-$70. 800-653-8000. metphilly.com