Record of the Week: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘Weathervanes’

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“If we hear some old adage or southern euphemism, we expect it to be honest and valuable to us, but sometimes it’s really not,” Jason Isbell tells me as we sit in two different places in middle Tennessee, connected by Zoom. Isbell is talking about the song “Cast Iron Skillet,” in which he delivers bits of folk wisdom over acoustic guitar, before giving dark details that counter the presumption of authority in an old saying. My camera is off for the interview, but Isbell’s is on, and I can see him staring into the distance and thinking: “I like to set the audience up for one thing and then twist it a little bit.”

Isbell has been doing that for years with his music, and online presence, and in-person presence. But in Weathervanes, his latest album, he injects it into the characters in his songs, who are proud and strong-willed, but who are also flawed and complicated.

In the new song “This Ain’t It,” a father stands in front of a crowd at his daughters wedding and tells her not to go through with it. He thinks he’s doing what’s right for his daughter, but who knows if he is right or wrong?

“You can’t really trust his motivations,” Isbell says, seemingly still try to figure out who is right in the song, even as he tells me about it. “That’s what the song is about.” Hearing Isbell talk about it, I am not even sure if he knows who is wrong or right.

That’s one of Isbell’s many strengths as a songwriter, and of Weathervanes as an album.

Isbell is in the middle of his career. He’s laid witness to many stories and he’s been paying attention to the details. Like in “Strawberry Woman,” where he notes that a young man in a cowboy hat wouldn’t last five minutes on the pedal steel, because of his square tip boots. He shows that he knows a thing or two, but throughout the album, he’s skeptical of people who think they are wise. It’s an album that questions it’s own motives, storytelling and reason for being. Which seems to be on brand for Jason Isbell. The one absolute truth is the way the music makes you feel.

Justin Barney: Let’s talk about Weathervanes. I’d like to start with “Deathwish.” It has an unusual structure as a song. How did you get to the shape of that song?

Jason Isbell: As a producer and arranger, it was a challenge, because the song that I had written was just the same chords over and over. The melody doesn’t change too much. There is a lot of repetition in that song. I like that sometimes.

Some of my favorite songs do that. Like Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl.”  That song has a similar vibe. There are two sections. There are two repeated phrases in that song and it just builds and builds and builds and builds until you get that relief. Honestly, until just now I hadn’t thought about the similarities between the two songs.

But that’s something I like. I like a rock song that’s, like, four minutes long that has verses and chorus and a bridge, but sometimes I like things that just sort of wonder and grow until the kind of devolve at the end.

To make that work in the studio, you really need to add things at the right time and you have to build from the ground up. And Matt Pence was in the studio with us. He’d come over from Texas to help us get some drum sounds and stuff. Me, him and Chad [Gamble] started working on this drum beat that was half one kit and half another kit. So Chad would go in and play half the drum beat on a smaller kit that we had set up in the booth and then he would go out in the big recording room and play the other half of the same drum lick on the big kit, and they fit together nicely. But at first we didn’t know they were gonna work because we were hitting the kick drum on the two. You never hit the kick drum on two. That’s like clapping on one and three. You just don’t do it. But it worked. Once we got the whole thing put together it worked really well, but it was difficult because it was so counterintuitive.

JB: To me it works metaphorically too.

JI: Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s the kind of song that the lyric lends itself to that kind of frustration gathering and you get more desperate and more desperate until you go off. But there are also a lot of beautiful things happening.

That was a point of the whole production for me, was to hold simultaneously gratitude and desperation in your mind.

JB: I’d like to go on to “Strawberry Woman” which is such a sweet song on the album. I love that in the beginning you say that he wouldn’t last five minutes on the pedal steel, and then at the end you have the pedal steel come in. Was that some intentional irony?

JI: Yeah, I think so. That’s Sadler [Vaden] doing a good pedal steel impersonation on slide guitar.

It was kind of like Chekhov’s gun. If you bring it in in the first act, you have to fire it by the end.

One thing you’ll notice if you ever try to play the pedal steel is that the pedals are very close together. So if your boots aren’t very pointy, you can’t really play the instrument. Your toe will hit more than one pedal at one time.

JB: That’s so funny. I fell like those are the observations and details that are so wonderful about your songwriting and this album. Like when you sing, “I’ve been to heaven in a sixth street bar.” I’m thinking, “What bar is this? Where is this? What is that time?”

JI: Yeah, well could be any bar. Well, not any one. Any good one, I guess. Sixth street in Austin is very popular, obviously, and a lot of the details in this song are dealing with the early days of my relationship with Amanda, and she’s from Texas. So that all lined up pretty nicely.

I make a note of those things, when I hear a story or a detail or something occurs to me. Like the pedal steel thing, I remember when that hit me. I was like, “Oh, I see why it’s such a cowboy instrument. You have to have pointy boots on to play it.” Sometimes I write those things down and then they end up making their way into a song later.

JB: I read somewhere that you said that this is the closest that you get to nostalgia on the record. Music has such a complicated relationship with nostalgia. Sometimes people go to music for nostalgia. After you listen to a song for the first time, you have nostalgia immediately for that moment of when you heard it for the first time.

JI: But sometimes that’s unfair to the music. It’s kind of like the first time you drink too much tequila and you get sick. You never want to drink tequila again. But it wasn’t the tequila’s fault. If you listen to music all the time, you are gonna associate some pretty bad memories with some pretty good songs. 

I like having some of those preconceptions, like, “What role has music traditionally filled for people?” And if I get an opportunity to subvert that, then it’s a nice technique.

I like to get someone lulled into the sense of security. Like, “Oh, we are going to a positive memory, we’re going to do a nostalgia here,” and then all of a sudden start pointing out the reality of that situation. That’s a trick that I employ pretty often.

People expect that when they hear a song that sounds wistful and longing that there is going to be something nostalgic about it, then when you hit them with a real detail it’s quite a shock.

JB: I think that you really nail that on “Cast Iron Skillet.” You really set that up with the accordion. It is the right instrument for the right job in that song. How did you get to that accordion open on “Cast Iron Skillet?”

JI: Well that was Derry [deBorja] our keyboard player, he plays the accordion also and has since he joined the band. I’m always trying to use it when it makes sense. I love the sound of that instrument. It’s one of the great mistakes. It’s what I call “the Wurlitzer effect.”

That’s where an instrument that was designed to sound like something just completely missed the mark. Then people started using it for something else and it sounded way better. Most of our modern electric instruments have happened that way. The accident of it ended up being beautiful. Like the Wurlitzer. It’s clearly not an acoustic piano. It’s just not. But it works better in a lot of cases.

The accordion sets a place of home. It’s one of those home instruments. It really makes people feel like they are going back to the place where they are from.

JB: Why do you think the accordion is so universal? Its used in so many countries and cultures.

JI: A lot of those instruments fell into favor when things got more portable. This is my own personal theory. One reason I think the guitar is such an important instrument is because it’s a small instrument that you can do full chords on. This applies to the accordion too. You can do full accompaniment. They can be a lead or a rhythm instrument. And you can also just take them down the road with you and take them to someone’s  house. So for a while that was extremely valuable to people. Just take the instrument door to door. It can come with you to a party or a religious service or something like that. And you practice on the same instrument that you play on. Now you can put everything into a laptop and carry it with you, so it’s hard for an instrument like the accordion to survive in the same way.

JB: In “Cast Iron Skillet,” you set it up as someone imbuing wisdom, but it’s almost like, just because someone sounds like they are imbuing wisdom and it sounds smart, it doesn’t always mean that it is wise.

JI: But we expect it to be, don’t we? From the start, if we hear some old adage or southern euphemism, we expect it to be honest and valuable to us ,and sometimes it’s really not.

That’s another thing where I like to set the audience up for one thing and then twist it a little bit.

JB: I think you do that so well in that song and I also think you do that really well on “This Ain’t It.”  

JI: For “This Ain’t It,” there is the traditional use of the unreliable narrator. In this song you can see the unreliable narrator as being the person who is giving you words of wisdom that really aren’t all that wise. You can’t really trust his motivations for them. That’s what that song is about. It’s this dad that has been out of his daughters life for a long time and all of a sudden decides to pop back in and try to talk her into doing something that would have a really severe effect on the rest of her life one way or another.  

JB: What’s the key to writing a song where the events haven’t necessarily happened to you?

JI: You have to spend a lot of time on detail. You also have to follow those characters around. If you make those characters strong enough from the start. If you set it up where people can actually see and hear and feel the person that you are describing or the person that you are speaking from then you just allow them to behave naturally, I guess.

The good thing about writing a song is that you can mix yourself in there how much or how little you want to and you don’t have to specify how much, and I love that. I love not having to say that this is fiction or this is nonfiction, like you would a book or a movie. It’s a nice thing to have as a songwriter because you can just come and go as you please.

JB: You were answering some questions from fans on Twitter the other day and you mentioned a time where a music cruise accidentally raffled off a guitar of yours. What happened there?

JI: They had a giveaway. I think people were donating money to give to some kind of cause and win a chance to win this guitar. The thing was that they had all the guitars in the same storage area on the boat. I checked my guitar in and they put it in that storage area and the giveaway guitar was right next to our gear so when they went to grab that giveaway guitar they grabbed my guitar instead. Even though it was in a big flight case and should have been obvious. Anyway, they gave my guitar away.  When I got home, I didn’t have my guitar and I went for months without my guitar. It turns out it was in Chicago and it was just under somebodies bed.

They weren’t there to see us on the boat, so they didn’t know who I was or anything. But someone came over to their house who knew of me and saw this guitar with my name stenciled on the outside and said, “I think this is Jason Isbell’s actual guitar.” Then they emailed Traci [Thomas] my manager and finally got it back to me.

Also, once we got robbed in Dallas, Texas and the only instrument we got back was Jimbo [Hart]’s bass.

Jimbo had this old Fender, a Precision bass that he played for a long, long time. A really great instrument. It got stolen along with everything else. But it turns out that his mom lives in Arlington, which was right down the street from the police station where it wound up. The bass sat in the evidence room for over a year before someone let us know that it was there, and then once they did she went back and got it for him.

JB: Okay last question: What is the last song that you couldn’t stop listening to?

JI: You know, probably Demi Lovato’s “Confident.” I’ll tell you the reason for that. It’s because it’s my daughter’s favorite song. That’s what she wants to listen to A LOT.

I took her to see Demi at the Ryman right after we played. I pulled a trick. I told her that I left something in the dressing room after a Ryman run. So we came in the back and I hadn’t left anything and when we got to the dressing room there was Demi Lovato and she was so sweet. She waived at my daughter when she played that song. It was amazing. So much respect to Demi Lovato.