Fred Mills: Jason Isbell – One of the Good Guys

Jason by Michael Wilson

Paying tribute to the rocker and singer/songwriter who is BLURT’s Artist of The Year 2013. Go here to read our interview with Isbell.


 In my capacity as editor of this magazine I’ve had the privilege of interacting with Jason Isbell on several occasions. (The first time actually predates BLURT: backstage at the 2006 Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in Asheville, NC, prior to a set from the Drive-By Truckers, I ran into Jason, chatted briefly, and had him sign one of my DBT record sleeves.) Then in July of 2008 he came to the Grey Eagle club in Asheville, NC, with his 400 Unit guitarist Browan Lollar, to do an acoustic show. That afternoon I and Associate Editor Andy Tennille interviewed Isbell for series of video clips for the BLURT website, the two musicians additionally playing “In A Razor Town” and “The Magician.” Both in front of and away from the cameras, Jason was engaged and thoughtful, preferring to talk more about songcraft and musical heroes than himself. (He also inscribed a tour poster to my young son: already a fan of Isbell’s, he proudly displayed it on his bedroom wall.)

 My next few encounters were long distance, via telephone to Isbell’s home in Alabama; notably, in January 2011 a few months prior to the release of Here We Rest, and it was one of the most intimate conversations I’ve ever had with an artist. He discussed the making of the album, of course, also candidly talking at length about the origins and inspirations for several key tracks. As we talked, he even opened up about his childhood, his parents, his Alabama roots, and his relationship with the DBT’s Patterson Hood.

 There have also been several times when I was in regular fan mode, most recently this past July in Raleigh, NC, during the first leg of his Southeastern tour. But I think my fondest memory comes from the summer of 2011 when the 400 Unit performed on an outdoor stage at Asheville’s Bele Chere festival. I’d taken my son, then 10, and his best buddy, and they were pretty knocked out by the show.

 Afterward, we found our way to the backstage area where Jason was sitting on the step-up of an equipment truck, smoking a cigarette. Spotting us, he rose and wandered over and proceeded to treat the boys like they were the most important people on the planet at that moment, signing their CDs, quizzing them about their guitar skills (both of them had been playing for a couple of years), and instructing them to “keep at the practice.” Sure, it was just one of many such brief encounters for a touring musician. But it meant everything to those two kids—and for that, Jason, yours truly will always count you among the good guys.

 This article originally appeared in issue #14 of BLURT.

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