Sober for seven years (by the tattooed notch count on his arm), Jason Isbell has mined the hard times and found gold in songs that seem to resonate with well, everyone, including the “most devoted fan bases in modern music: emotional hipster kids, hard-bitten Nashville guitar players, brainy suburban moms.” At GQ, Zach Baron talks to the singer-songwriter-guitarist about writing songs in the car, being a Southern Democrat, staying sober, and being friends with the late John Prine.
Isbell once called the drunk version of himself “intolerable”—one of the milder ways he’s described his drinking years. “He went through a number of years of not necessarily being his best self,” Hood told me. “And you know, a lot of people never come back from that. And the fact that he did and rose to the occasion and grew up to become the kind of person that he really had the potential of being and then some is super admirable to me.”
I asked Isbell if, in all the talking about his past self, he’d found a way to begin forgiving the person he’d been.
“I mean, I’m coming around to forgiving that guy. But it’s pretty recent. Because I think for a lot of the first few years of my sobriety, I needed to hate his fucking guts. So I didn’t have any risk of turning back into him. But I think there’s a phase now that I’m moving into. My friends and my wife remind me sometimes: You know, you weren’t that bad, you weren’t all bad. You know? I loved you then. And…lately they’ve been saying that more, and that’s helpful to me.”
Maybe it’s safer to say it now than it was then.