Jason Isbell will perform Feb. 10 and 11 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Amy Harris Invision/AP
Jason Isbell will perform Feb. 10 and 11 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Amy Harris Invision/AP

Music News & Reviews

Grammy winner Isbell in another breakout moment, speaking up

By Isaac Weeks

Correspondent

February 08, 2018 01:15 PM

Jason Isbell’s career is in a peculiar spot for a Grammy Award-winning singer.

His latest album “The Nashville Sound” debuted at No. 1 on four different Billboard charts during its first week of release in June, including the Rock and Country Album charts.

“The Nashville Sound” and 2015’s “Something More Than Free” won Grammy Awards for Best Americana Album. So did singles off of each (“If We Were Vampires” this year and “24 Frames” in 2015) with each winning Best American Roots Song.

Yet the musician largely maintains a cult following of Americana and Alt-country fans.

Even in the Triangle, where Isbell has played several sold-out shows at various venues within the area, his work with Triangle-based Americana band American Aquarium may be his best-known presence in someone’s music collection. American Aquarium’s 2012 release “Burn. Flicker. Die.” features Isbell’s name in the producer slot, a job that has gone on to be noteworthy, as it remains his sole producer credit thus far in his career.

“They had a good set of songs, I think they had a good time (in the studio), and I really liked those guys a lot,” Isbell says, recalling his time with Aquarium. “They had toured so hard and done so many shows before stepping into the recording studio that they had a whole lot of the material already hashed out before we got there. But I think that album came out really well.”

That absence of later producing projects is a result of his career hitting a resurgence shortly thereafter, the Alabama native says. The opportunity to work with Aquarium came just months before his breakout moment – the release of 2013’s “Southeastern.”

That release marked both the singer’s breakthrough into the mainstream – and his first project after a stint in rehab broke him of years of drug and alcohol abuse. He’s been touring nonstop and spending time in the studio, both welcomed with critical acclaim.

The singer will perform Feb. 10 and 11 at the Durham Performing Arts Center with his band, the 400 Unit.

“‘Southeastern’ happened right after I worked with Aquarium, and that was when everything just took off for me,” he said in an interview days before he took home his two recent Grammy Awards. “That was really the last period of time in my life when I had two weeks that I could spend working on somebody’s record like that. Especially in the two years since my daughter came along, because any free time I have now goes to her.”

Becoming a family man has influenced Isbell’s work as an artist. He married longtime musical collaborator Amanda Shires in 2013, and the pair had a child two years later. Both events have made a mark upon the singer-songwriter’s music, with “Nashville Sound” being noticeably Isbell’s most political album of his career thus far.

Some songs on the record, such as “White Man’s World,” call into question the racial and gender injustices that he doesn’t have to face, while “Cumberland Gap” calls to mind the singer’s musical hero John Prine in its depiction of the current state of the coal mining areas of the country. The release of those songs brought with them a social media storm of comments accusing Isbell of shunning his more right-leaning fans, and wondering where the sudden change in lyrics came from, at least that’s how they viewed it.

“I don’t think that was coming from my fans, necessarily,” Isbells said. “I think, since I am not afraid to talk about where I stand on certain things when I am performing live, there are very few times that I’ve ever received a negative reaction to what I’m saying in the songs. I think what you are reading online is coming from people that have never actually listened to my music. A small percentage of them could be folks that heard work that I may have performed in the past, yet never really paid attention to it, but I’m not real interested in spending a lot of time on pleasing those folks.”

Isbell said he feels confident in speaking his mind, on or off stage.

“I definitely have things to say, and it doesn’t really matter to me if anyone agrees with it or not,” he said. “I don’t have to watch what I say in order to drum up a certain amount of support. Also, the trade-off is very advantageous for me, as the amount of fans I gained by opening up and showing some of my beliefs through my music has outweighed the naysayers by a large amount. I’ve definitely picked up a lot of new fans through speaking my mind on things, enough to make me wonder if I should have done it earlier.”

Details

Who: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit with opener James McMurtry)

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11

Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham

Cost: $32.50, $60

Info: 919-680-2787 or DPACnc.com