Pioneering artist Jason Isbell discusses the evolving role of his guitar throughout his musical journey
“I’m not sure if anyone writes songs with electric guitars anymore, but I certainly still do,” Jason Isbell told American Songwriter from his home outside of Nashville. “Not because I think it’s better or anything, but just because it’s what I know.”
Originally from northern Alabama, Isbell was born to teenage parents into a largely musical family. His grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher who was instrumental in his breeding, introduced young Isbell to the mandolin at the age of 6. It was the only stringed instrument small enough for his hands. Together they listened to Gospel and Bluegrass music, slowly adding acoustic and then electric guitar to the mix.
Isbell bought his first Fender at age 12, and the iconic brand has since become a mainstay of his coalescing sound. On May 11, in collaboration with Fender, the artist announced the Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster®– a testament to his musical journey and the extensive influences that brought him here.
It wasn’t until his teenage years that Isbell found an outlet for his feelings of well-being, putting pencil on paper using an electric guitar. He says, “It kind of made sense. There were things I wanted to say and feelings I wanted to express, and I just naturally started writing my songs because I was already playing other people.
Today, at age 42, this process remains intact.
“I think having a few years under my belt as a guitarist before I started writing songs gave me an advantage because it’s easier to find melodies and chord progressions,” he says. “I just had more options when it came time to write songs.”
He first joined southern rock band Drive-By Truckers in 2001, which seemed like a breakthrough. His subsequent release in 2007, followed by a rocky road to sobriety, brought him back to earth. His path finally stabilized in his solo art. Stepping out of the southern rock writing box for The Truckers, Isbell found freedom. He said, “It occurred to me that I could do whatever I wanted; I didn’t have to point my songs in a specific direction. “
After marrying Amanda Shires – another artist-songwriter, mother of her five-year-old daughter and fiddler and singer in her band, The 400 Unit – Isbell continued to flourish. As his musical identity developed into a “storyteller,” his relationship with the guitar changed.
“I would still write songs, even if I wasn’t good at it,” he laughs. “But the fact that I was successful as a songwriter probably taught me that I shouldn’t fill all of these songs with guitar solos – there are a lot of places people can go. if they want to hear great guitarists. I realized that if I wanted to stand out, I had to use my instrument to express myself rather than to show people my technical abilities.
Among the most prolific songwriters of his time, Isbell attributes a past that he regularly evokes in his poignant lyricism. He is particularly haunted by these difficult years between 2007 and his post-rehabilitation release from South East in 2013. From where he stands, now sober for nine years, Isbell smiles ironically.
His most turbulent days have turned into a book of redemption stories in which he plays both the antagonist and the protagonist. As a writer, he paints himself in the truest light that shines through the retrospective.
“Once I got sober, my life was cleaned up, I had something to say that wasn’t just your typical love song or your rock n ‘roll song,” he says. “I had a story to tell. And the best way for me to tell this story was to write songs. I was lucky that all of these things lined up when they did.
Humbly seeking out the silver linings of his past, Isbell says, “I didn’t have the experience that would lend itself to transcendent songs. And when it all happened to me, I was finding out how I had failed, how I wanted to live and what my priorities were, ”he says.
“As a songwriter, you can take those moments in your life, document them in your work, and take it to another level – write about something more than your own selfish interests. And so I got really lucky that way.
His latest album, Meetings, shows this balance he has found in his art. “It Gets Easier” pushes the boundaries of its usage policy, boasting the guitar tone that’s unique to a Telecaster. It is reminiscent of his early days leaving the Truckers and in the same vein as the rock anthem “Super 8”, presented on South East.
The latter puts together moments to detail a seemingly routine spiral in a seedy motel room. The humor attached to his lived experience battling addiction adds a human element that functions much the same as the raw accounts shared in the most recent “It Gets Easier”.
Last night I remembered / Sometimes I forgot a woman’s name / I passed out while driving / How tight the handcuffs are / My daughter’s eyes when she’s ashamed, he laments the rock tones.
As a father now, his five-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose, holds him accountable. Closing Meetings with “Letting You Go” – the most directly narrative track in the collection – clarifies this.
“Many women I know have done a lot of work to come to terms with the fact that their standards may be higher than those set by their father,” he says. “I would prefer my daughter didn’t have to do all of this work.”
Isbell continues, “You must be the guy who stops in the aisle because otherwise you’re just a hypocrite. If you want to have high standards for the people who spend time with your daughter, you are going to have to set yourself high standards. “
To keep his character in check, Isbell brings up a practice called “Rigorous Honesty” in the AA room – the idea that it is often easier to be honest with those around you than to be honest with yourself. It requires careful self-examination, paying close attention to the truth, which Isbell says is a “hard lesson to learn.”
“I just want her to agree to be herself,” he says. “If we can be honest with ourselves, everything else will fall into place. But people lie to each other every day about their circumstances, their situations and their fears. As a country we have had a lot of problems because people would rather be angry than admit being afraid. You don’t grow up that way. Until I went through the recovery process, I wasn’t very good at all. And I still work on it every day.
Isbell’s strength lies in this practice, becoming familiar with the truth. His sense of music as a guitarist just helps to express vulnerabilities.
The new custom dual-link Telecaster reflects the miles between Isbell’s early years and its current success with the Fender Road Worn® aging process, which gives it the look and feel of a well-used instrument.
To personalize the project, the artist sent the Fender team their favorite guitar, a vintage 1959 telecaster. Their tone guru, Tim Shaw, hung on to it for a while, studying the pattern’s structure. Fender then meticulously designed a custom guitar with a close approximation of the original pickup and neck profile.
“So it plays and it sounds like a very special old guitar that I love,” Isbell says. He and the team went back and forth about the finish on the neck. “I wanted to feel like it had been played, which is hard to do with a new guitar, especially if you don’t spend the custom shop money,” he continues. “But I think they did a great job with it.”
The Chocolate Sunburst color contrasts with the cream double bond to align with Isbell’s vision for the product. The vintage-inspired “C” shaped maple neck and 21-fret rosewood create a retro sound, demonstrating the precious details that turned her favorite Tele into a songwriting tool used to refine roots music. Intentionally affordable, the Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster from Fender symbolizes his evolving role in musical history as he pioneered the modern rock soundscape.
The Grammy Award-winning artist observes the revered tradition of acoustic roots music, but Isbell’s work is not a revival. Instead, the artist tells the story of the contemporary, drawing on fundamental influences to deliver a mix of country, blues and rock & roll, palatable for young and old alike. Tactfully, he uses age-old traditions as a vessel for his carefully crafted song stories that speak directly to modern issues.
The music industry classifies it as “Americana”. According to Isbell, “You could call anything root-based Americana music.” He adds: “I hear roots in everything, in every genre. But I don’t spend time on the question of gender. “
Born right across the river from Muscle Shoals, his idea of roots music reflects everything from traditional bluegrass and church music, on which he was raised, to soul-influenced rock & roll and music. country that pinned northern Alabama to the map in the 60s and 70s.
“I’m too busy making music to ask myself whether or not it fits in certain boxes,” he continues. “I know you have to tell people what something is to get them to listen to it the first time around, so that’s great. All I know is that there is an excitement in playing electric instruments. I love acoustic guitars, but they don’t turn me on in the same way as electric instruments.
Available from Fender for just under $ 1,500, the Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster, he says, “isn’t terribly expensive, especially for what it is. It’s something that a lot of people can buy and enjoy, and I’m really proud of it.
He adds: “The nicest thing about the guitar, for me, is that I have had equal moments of joy sitting in my room, playing the guitar on my own as I am standing on stage, at play for 10,000 people. And there aren’t a lot of items you can use in these two settings to get that much joy. “
The Custom Guitar marks Isbell’s first collaboration with the iconic guitar brand as part of its Artist Signature Series. Meet Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster®, inspired by his favorite TV since childhood through his current success here.