“By all accounts he should have been gone 20 years ago, but John survived a couple bouts of cancer and been living like he’s on borrowed time,” Isbell said. “He’s one of the only people his age, maybe the only one I’ve ever seen, who gets angry when it’s time for his show to end ’cause he wants to stay up on stage. Most people at that stage of their career watch the clock to see when they can go to sleep, and John watches it because he doesn’t want the time to end.”
Now, with Isbell’s Reunions album out in the world, its title speaks not only to the folks from his past who influenced and encouraged him, but also to better days ahead when he and so many others can return to stages and share the joy of making music with friends and fans.
“A lot of songs are about loneliness and isolation, so there’s a lot of timely music happening right now.
“I didn’t do it intentionally,” he said, “but that was one of the themes when we went back and listened to the songs as a whole … reuniting with a lot of people in my mind and people from my past, and also with a part of myself.
“Perhaps now is a good time for people to reconnect with their own humanity. Maybe, for some people, this will be a time when they can reconnect with the part of themselves that really needs music and needs art to survive … it’s the foundation of all of our different cultures.”
A former member of Georgia’s country rockers Drive-By Truckers, Isbell branched out on his own with his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, in 2007. Along with his own band the 400 Unit, which came together for his self-titled 2009 album, the 41-year-old has steadily been carving a name for himself among the new breed of versatile Americana singers, songwriters and guitarists.
“I’ve done a lot of things, seen a lot of things and when I take inventory of my life I’m very, very grateful. I have worked hard, but it’s a privilege to be able to work hard. I’ve really, truly enjoyed that and I think of that with John Prine … I see my situation in very much the same way, being allowed to do the things I’ve been able to do.
“I’ve listened to a whole lot of different kinds of music,” he says, reflecting on the tracks from his new album, “and I’d get bored just making one style. It’s all based on the song for me but as far as the particular genre it can be all over the place. And I think that lines up well with the times, there’s a little something – if not for everybody, then for a lot of different folks.”
As the US grappled with the spread of coronavirus, Isbell was staying close to home with his wife Amanda Shires, herself a singer, songwriter and violinist, and their young daughter. Shires, who hosts her own live-streamed music program from their barn, had her husband perform some songs recently, including an improvised version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.
“We pulled that one out of the hat, kind of on the spur of the moment,” Isbell said with a chuckle. “That’s a great song, I love that song. I didn’t really think about that (people at home in isolation) when I started singing it but by the time I got about halfway through it occurred to me how timely it is … a lot of songs are about loneliness and isolation, so there’s a lot of timely music happening right now.”
Martin Boulton is EG Editor at The Age and Shortlist Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald