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Jason Isbell Has Conquered Fear, But He's Still Learning About Himself

Jason Isbell's new album, <em>Something More Than Free, </em>comes as he's preparing to be a father.
David McClister
Courtesy of the artist
Jason Isbell's new album, Something More Than Free, comes as he's preparing to be a father.

Jason Isbell is riding high this week: His new album Something More Than Free is number one on Billboard's country, rock and folk charts. The musician from rural Alabama got his start with the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, and then went solo. For the past few years, he's been sober, after drinking brought him "close to the point of no return."

That's what he told NPR's Melissa Block when she visited him at his Nashville home two years ago. Now, Isbell and his wife, the singer and violinist Amanda Shires, have a baby on the way — a girl, due in September.

The new album reflects how far he's come, and he recently spoke again with Block about its music, its characters and its relationship to his evolving role as a husband and soon-to-be father. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Melissa Block: Are you still wrestling with that shadow self, your other self?

Jason Isbell: It's become more strategic for me, you know? I've had to figure out new ways to do things — new ways to access the emotional part of myself, the part of myself that I wasn't afraid to access when I was drinking. It's taken some time, and I'm still working on it. I'm still working on being open, especially with Amanda, with my family, with close friends.

Talk a bit about the song "24 Frames."

Well, when you're watching a movie, there's 24 frames that go by in one second. The verses of the song deal specifically with the relationship that I'm in with my wife and the fact that she's also a creative person. I spend a lot of time wondering how to best support the people that I love, because I think sometimes that means getting out of the way. When should I leave them alone to have their own life? Or, in Amanda's case, to create and tour and sing and play music.

Is there an element of fleeting time there, and just how much passes in a second?

Yeah, and how quickly things can change, too. The things that are happening with my career right now — I really wish I could slow down and make sure to pay attention to the details.

I'm really fond of the character in the song "Hudson Commodore" — I'm picturing a woman in the 1940s. It's very spare song, but in the few details that you give us about this woman, we learn so much about a solitary life and somebody who has really romantic dreams. She wants to ride in fancy cars.

One very fancy car and one not-so-fancy car — just one that she liked. The Delahaye was a very fancy car, but the Hudson wasn't as fancy. The fact that she didn't want to drive the car, I think, says that she's spent most of the time driving the car in her life, so she might just want to ride in the passenger seat for a while.

She wants to be driven.

Yes, exactly.

Tell me more about this woman and how you found her.

My wife is so very important to me that it's made my mom more important to me. It's made every woman I know more important to me. So, I try my best to empathize, and that's what she came from. She came from thinking about, "Okay, what was it like to be my grandmother in the '40s?" And be independent but not really be allowed much independence.

If I were to look at your notebooks, what would I see in your editing? What would you be taking out?

Anything that's not necessary, that's the first to go for me. Anything that is clichéd without coming at it from a different angle. I like a cliché if it's sort of turned on its head. My wife's good about spotting those, because that's a big pet peeve of hers.

And what would she tell you about that?

Oh, just, "Get rid of that. That's gross."

There's a song on this album called "Children of Children."

Part of the inspiration for this song was pictures, looking through pictures at my house. Amanda and I had this conversation a lot about how her mom and my mom were very close to the same age, and they were the same age when we were born — we were both their first kids. They were both teenagers.

Now that we're about to have a kid of our own, 36 years old, I couldn't imagine being sent home with a newborn when I was 17 or 19 like my parents and her parents were. I think, well, how would my mom's life be different? How would her mom's life be different? What phases and stages did they miss out on because we were around and demanding so much of their time?

What are you most excited about, maybe most afraid about, when you think about having a baby?

I'm excited just to have another person in the world who thinks I'm cool! Somebody here loves me right off the bat, no matter what, you know?

I really don't do fear that much anymore, though, to tell you the truth. I'm kind of over that. I've dealt with a lot of physical pain, with a lot of emotional pain; anybody's who's ever been an alcoholic has handled both of those in extreme. So, as long as my family, my wife, is taken care of and able to do what she wants to do and be happy, I'm not really afraid of much.

Well, let me know if you're still fearless once you have the child.

That's gonna be real different, yeah. After that, I'm going to have one big huge thing to be terrified of.

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