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Jason Isbell returns to Alabama to talk Shoalsfest, career

Shoalsfest Credit to Josh Weichman.jpg
Josh Weichman

Shoalsfest is heading to Mcfarland Park in Florence this weekend. It’s the third year the music festival has taken place. The event is the work of Grammy award winning artist Jason Isbell. He was in the Shoals to discuss the festival at a press conference in the park.

Isbell says when he invites an artist to Shoalsfest, he feels it’s like inviting someone to have dinner at his mother’s house. The legendary bassist David Hood was in the audience at the press conference before we spoke. It was like seeing the torch being passed from one generation to another.

After the conference, Isbell spoke about those early days in the Shoals.

“I remember seeing the Midnighters play all over town and the Decoys would play all over town too and usually they would be in restaurants and David was playing with the Decoys and I would go see them and they would get us up to sit in when they figured we were old enough to get up and sit in and give them a little bit of a break," he said. "But that was really how me and Jimbo, my bass player, and Chad my drummer- but especially me and Jimbo- we learned how to play in bands from that.”

Isbell is a family man who often tours with his wife and daughter, but life has not always been this kind to him. Jason has had his struggles and he wasn’t afraid to talk about them. In fact, he often sings about them.

“The most dangerous times for me is when I’m really happy because when something bad happens, I have a system in place, I have planned on that. I know that people are going to die, I know there are going to be hard times, everybody has to face those and I know how to not drink in those situations, but when I win a Grammy or something, I’m like, 'What do I do now? I can’t have champagne. What do I do? This is great, something great has happened. I guess I’ll just sit here and be happy about it for a while and drink some soda water,'" he said. "The more grateful you get for all these things, the easier it becomes to not slip into your old patterns, but it never goes away…not for me and not for anybody. I’ve had a lot of friends who have been sober for a decade or more and then you know just face planted into a back slide and that doesn’t just go for substance abuse. It goes for whatever demon you’re trying to beat. You keep them at bay, and you realize they are still all there and still trying to trick you.”

I shared a personal story about seeing him at the Ryman where there was somebody behind me who was clearly drunk and yelling out the lyrics to “It Gets Easier,” a song about sobriety. I told him that the irony seemed lost on the listener.

“That guy standing behind you drunk, he might not be thinking too seriously about the lyrics right now but if he lives long enough, he will at some point go back to that moment and think, 'I never really paid that much attention to that when I was drinking and raising hell,'" he said. "It’s like in 'Cover Me Up' when I talk about swearing off alcohol and everybody throws their drinks up and yells. I love that. I understand that there is some irony there, but I like it because I think you know maybe if these people have a problem with what they’re doing someday they’ll realize it and look back and go, 'Oh I get it, I see what he meant now.' And the best thing you can do as a songwriter is write something that, the meaning opens up over time and the song becomes more poignant for different reasons later on.”

“I think if there is one unifying theme to my career, at least my career for the last 10 years, it has been the idea that you can be a good person and still be a creative person. That’s something that’s very valuable to me and, it’s also, a lot of those kind of myths are being undone now because people feel safer or more capable to talk about the things that have happened to them. But, you know, when we deify musicians or rock stars or athletes or politicians or anybody who is in the public eye in that way, there’s a lot of collateral damage, you know, there’s a lot of people who…their stories don’t get heard and I think now is a good time to take away the sort of romantic idea of these people as heroes because, you know, I’m just a regular dude...I think that the idea that your creative work might suffer if you lead more of a normal life, I think that idea is in the process of being debunked and I love to see it because, you know, you don’t have to die alone and miserable to be a rock and roll star- you just, you don’t have to do that.”

Isbell mentioned that what inspired the festival was having to go to Birmingham or Nashville as a kid to see shows. He always dreamed of a stage nearby that would bring local and national acts together. This year brings not only Jason and his band, but also Amanda Shires, who happens to be his wife, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Drivin and Cryin, "Kingfish" Ingram, The Pollies and more.

Shoalsfest will be held on October 1st and 2nd at Mcfarland Park in Florence. For more information visit

Joe Moody is a senior producer and host for the APR newsroom. Before joining the team, Joe taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. He is a native of Montgomery and a proud Alabamian. He is currently studying library and information studies at the University of Alabama with a focus on archives. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys listening to jazz records and 45s from the 1950s and 60s.
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