JASON ISBELL was supposed to talk to the Mercury a few different times before this article was written.
First, it was gonna be in mid-July. And then the interview got pushed off a week. We even had a time scheduled for July 29, although that got moved when the Huffington Post wanted some of Isbell's time, too.
Then it was Thursday or Friday. But Thursday evaporated. And so did Friday.
Isbell's a really busy guy, you see. Probably busier than he's ever been in his life, even stretching back to his fabled stint as the third-wheel songwriter in the Drive-By Truckers. (Third wheel in the sense that three songwriters in a band is a tough thing to navigate, mind you. Not that Isbell couldn't hang with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. He definitely could.)
Writing and recording and releasing the two best records of your life will make you a busy guy. But even then, it's often just the music geeks who pay attention.
But accompanying those records with the kind of loss, love, and redemption that you get in a movie? A lot more folks will latch onto that kind of story.
After leaving the Truckers in 2007 and releasing three solid but unspectacular solo records, Isbell's near-perfect 2013 album Southeastern was the turning point. Its slow pace and stark arrangements put Isbell's sturdy voice and stirring tales at center stage. In the first track, "Cover Me Up," he sings: "I sobered up. I swore off that stuff, forever this time/The old lovers sing, 'I thought it'd be me who helped him get home'/But home was a dream, one I'd never seen 'til you came along."
The narrative around Southeastern was that Isbell had sobered up after years of dangerously hard drinking, and he'd fallen in love and married a woman named Amanda Shires, herself an accomplished musician. In interviews and even on Twitter, that notoriously cynical medium, Isbell seemed a changed man: funnier, more forthcoming, happier.
Always an affable and articulate Southern man (Isbell is from a small town near the legendary music town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama), the success of Southeastern put his personality on display and set the stage for this year's follow-up, Something More Than Free. It's a beautiful collection of elegant roots-pop songs with peppier tempos, fuller arrangements, and, in places, more hopeful lyrics than on Southeastern. This time, the loner in the lead track reflects Isbell's own journey: "My day will come, if it takes a lifetime."
Rock 'n' roll is a young man's game, they say. And they seem to be right. The vast majority of songwriters turned out better tunes in their 20s than in their 50s, and most bands' best records are their first or second. There are exceptions, of course, but they're just that: exceptions.
Isbell's an exception. He's older than he used to be—36, if Wikipedia's telling the truth—and he's been a working musician since his teens. Everything he's been involved with has been good or better because of him. But he has clearly hit his stride in the past few years, first creatively with Southeastern and now commercially. Something More Than Free debuted at number 6 on the Billboard 200 album chart. His last Portland show, in September 2013, happened at the 600-capacity Aladdin Theater. Saturday night, he'll play the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which holds more than 2,500.
And then there's all that attention from the media, which kept him just outside the Merc's reach. Recent clips on his page include NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times.
Isbell's a busy guy. And he's about to get busier: He and Shires are expecting a baby—a little girl—in September. In fact, on the very last day I could've spoken with him before writing this, he couldn't do it. Not because a bigger outlet asked for an interview, but because he was flying home to spend time with Shires in the final month or so of her pregnancy.
It would've been nice to chat with him, but you can't argue with that.