Over the course of his last two albums - 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Grammy-winning Something More Than Free - Jason Isbell has solidified himself as Americana music’s premier working talent. This June, he’ll return, dial turned way up, with The Nashville Sound, his most defiant, electrifying, and above all, rocking set to date. “That was an accident,” he admits to EW via a phone call from his Las Vegas hotel room. “I got lucky on this album that I had a good set of songs that I think will keep everybody awake.”
Today, EW is thrilled to share the collection’s soaring lead single, “Hope the High Road.”
The Alabama native first entered the public consciousness at 22 years young when he became a member of the fabled Southern rock outfit the Drive-By Truckers. He penned several of the group’s most beloved tunes, including “Decoration Day” from their 2003 album of the same name, early in his tenure, but it was just six years of hardly remembered living later, in 2007, that he found his way out. The next few years were professionally and personally listless - he released a few uneven solo collections while continuing to struggle with alcoholism - but he finally re-emerged in 2013. Newly sober and with a clear artistic gaze, he debuted his devastatingly good fourth solo album, Southeastern.
That LP boasted several cuts that are poised for permanent homes in the American songbook: the AMA Song of the Year-winning “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone,” both reflections on his years spent battling the bottle, as well as the tear-jerking “Elephant,” where he sings of a man losing his love to cancer. And delightfully, two years later, his 2015 set made good on all of Southeasterns promise; Free reached No.1 on the Billboard country, folk, and rock albums charts immediately following its release and eventually took home Grammys for Best Americana Album and Best Folk Song (“24 Frames”) at the 2016 ceremony.
But where Southeastern and Free were hyper-focused, offering taut vignettes of Southern, blue-collar life, Sound widens its meditative scope, contemplating the here and now in more expansive, existential terms. As the 38-year-old says, “I try to document where I am in my life and right now, one of my primary concerns is, What is my role as a white male in a society that really is in dire need of understanding and empathy for people who aren’t white males?'” That question fuels much of the album’s 10 tracks, especially the foreboding “White Man’s World,” which threatens, “I’m a white man living in a white man’s town / Want to take a shot of cocaine and burn it down” and “Hope the High Road,” streaming below.
On “Road”, Isbell, who has been openly critical of President Donald Trump on Twitter, laments the effects of the current, divisive social climate. “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well,” he sings, his throaty baritone as empathetic as ever, “Uninspired and likely mad as hell.” But this isn’t just a forum for airing grievances. Facing despair, Isbell remains steadfast. “But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch,” he cautions, “I’ll meet you up here on the road.” As he says, “I really wanted it to be something that was reflective of my own character as it is now. Now that I’m a father, now that I’m grown, now that I’m sober, now that I’m clearheaded.” He hopes the message resonates: “I want [listeners] to feel encouraged to be vigilant but to still stay classy, for Christ’s sake. If you’re doing too much yelling and too much screaming and acting out of frustration, you’re not effecting change in any positive way.”
It’s not just contentious politics that have altered his perspective. Shortly after Free released, Isbell and his wife, singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, became parents for the first time. Fatherhood arrives, lyrically, in several places on the album, but Isbell explains their daughter also influenced the lines that don’t explicitly mention her. “It’s caused me to notice things more, which is great for a songwriter,” he says. “Before she came along, I went through this period of time where I wasn’t afraid of anything. I had gotten sober and I didn’t have a whole lot of fear. Once she [arrived], everything began to look like a dangerous object to me. I think so hard, trying to plan ahead and trying to see what’s going to wind up being a bump in the road in her future.” (Cue the album’s sprawling, near-seven minute centerpiece “Anxiety.”)
“I also try to pay attention to the world she’s seeing,” he continues. “For her, it’s as good as it will ever be, as far as I can tell ... There’s nothing better than the learning process. Once you know what everything is ... every day a little bit more of the magic is gone.”
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The most immediately felt step forward, however, is in the music. “Hope the High Road” flat-out cooks with electric fretwork and stomping drumlines. Guided by studio wiz Dave Cobb, who also helmed production for Southeastern and Free plus recent releases from Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, is on full display here. That, it turns out, also happened by happy accident. When the majority of recording was finished, Isbell says he realized Sound wasn’t another solo collection, hence the credits across the album cover that read “Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.” So far, he’s digging the results. “It’s exciting!” he says. “I don’t sit down to try to write rock n’ roll songs ... I mean, I do sometimes, but that never works,” he adds, laughing. “The thing that works is to just write the best song that I can write and not fk it up when we record it.”
That all mixes well with the title, though Isbell promises it isn’t as middle-fingers-up as it might sound at first. “The Nashville sound” is referenced in lyric on “White Man’s World,” but it’s also the nickname of where the group recorded: RCA Studio B, birthplace of great albums from the likes of Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, and other industry titans who have shaped Music City’s rich history. After it was cut, while debating what to call the collection, Isbell found himself staring at the room’s signage. Then it occurred to him: “Wouldn’t it be nice to try and claim that?”
“Hope the High Road” is streaming above. The Nashville Sound, due out June 16 via Southeastern Records, is currently available for pre-order.