Digesting the Jason Isbell Documentary “Running With Our Eyes Closed”

When Jason Isbell announced his new album Weathervanes due out on June 9th, one of the first questions I had was whether they would use what a bad husband Jason Isbell is to market the album. After all, that was the decision made of how to market his last album Reunions from 2020, as well as his wife Amanda Shires’ latest album Take It Like a Man from 2022.

In a detailed spread in The New York Times published the week of the release of Reunions, an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the couple’s marriage troubles was conveyed as a foundation of how the public should perceive Isbell’s new album. In stark detail, the article delved into how a stressed Jason Isbell pushed Amanda Shires away during the album making process, criticized her for her fiddle being too loud, how his sobriety was tested when he took a swig of Listerine for its alcohol content, and how Shires moved out for a stint because of Isbell’s callous and selfish behavior.

“He was impossible,” Shires says in the NYT article. “It was like he wanted help but didn’t want help…” and about the fiddle issue, “I was like, ‘Holy Christ! It’s acoustic. I can’t make it any quieter.’”

Then in 2022 amid the release of Amanda’s Take It Like a Man, the same conflicts during the creation of Reunions were cited regularly in press coverage of the album as one of the primary inspirations for the work.

“This part of my life and our marriage was difficult and it took me back to the reason I came to writing and doing music in the first place, which is expression,” Shires told Terry Gross of NPR.

The details and specificity of Amanda’s criticisms of Isbell were stark and alarming, and Isbell’s contriteness about the situation felt revelatory. Though the press often loves to portray Jason Isbell as a vessel of virtue for the stances he takes on social issues, the actions in his personal life seemed to portray a different side.

Despite the thoughtful nature if Jason Isbell’s songs that have ensconced him at the top of the always-nebulous but increasingly commercially viable “Americana” genre, his public persona has been one of a prickly and judgemental individual, lashing out at people on Twitter. While he’s cheered on by large elements of his own constituency, Isbell commonly contributes to the overall divisiveness of American society and the destructive “dunk culture” which devolves into concerns over who wins and loses, as opposed to cross-ideological dialogue and understanding to solve societal concerns.

All of this is the setup for the release of the documentary Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed on HBO, and streaming on HBO Max. Lo and behold, there was actually a full-on film production crew on site for the studio sessions of Reunions as part of a greater effort to chronicle that era in Jason Isbell’s career. The documentary specifically captures key moments in the Jason Isbell/Amanda Shires conflict during the making of the album.

Though the making of Reunions is the centerpiece of the 1 hr 40 min film, Running With Our Eyes Closed also delves into the back story of Jason Isbell, including interviewing his parents, tying their divorce into the inspirations behind Isbell’s song “Dreamsicle,” how Isbell’s upbringing has informed his music, and how his drinking caused his exit from The Drive-By Truckers. Details like how Isbell’s mother was only 16 when she had him, and his father was only 18 in rural Alabama help set the table for the type of insight and conflict that color in the lines of Jason Isbell songs.

The film goes beyond the recording sessions with producer Dave Cobb at RCA Studio A in Nashville to the onset of the pandemic, and the strange release of Reunions during the height of the lockdowns, which created another stress point for Jason Isbell and his band. The 400 Unit is also showcased in the film, including bassist Jimbo Hart’s riding lawnmower, and guitarist Sadler Vaden’s Roomba. About the only individual left out of the Jason Isbell story is the person that always seems to be left out—his first wife and fellow Drive-By Truckers member Shonna Tucker.

Along with offering intimate and rather incredible insight into the Jason Isbell universe, Running With Our Eyes Closed also offers great insight into the recording process of producer Dave Cobb, who takes a somewhat unique approach to recording. As opposed to practicing songs before heading into the studio like most bands do, or even road testing some of the songs in concert, Jason Isbell comes in with the songs day of, showing them to Dave Cobb and The 400 Unit fresh, and then recording them as the compositions come to life for the first time.

This Dave Cobb approach has resulted in some of the greatest albums released in the modern era of country and Americana music. But if an artist or band is ill-prepared for the process, or that process just doesn’t fit with how the performer approaches music, it can go bad, especially since Cobb will only block off a week or two for recording an entire album. This approach also ultimately helps feed into the conflict between Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.

You go into Running With Our Eyes Closed expecting to see a bad side of Jason Isbell. This is how you’ve been set up by the previous press coverage and revelations about the Reunions recording process. It’s also how the film itself is sold, and how Jason Isbell sets up the film in the first few minutes.

“I need to move forward as a person through this work,” Jason Isbell says. “For me to do that, I have to come to terms with things that don’t make me look cool, or don’t paint me in the best light, or don’t promote an idea I have of controlling my own image. Because I think controlling your image is the opposite of creating art.”

There is certainly fault to be found in how Jason Isbell conducts himself as things get sideways with his better half as the film unfolds. But whatever the reality of things happens to be beyond the portrayals in the press, in this particular film it is not Jason Isbell who comes across as the aggressor and guilty party for train wrecking the Reunions recording sessions. It is Amanda Shires.

7 1/2 minutes into the documentary, Shires is already tearing apart the Dave Cobb approach to recording, saying with an attitude about the approach of not practicing beforehand and instead working out the songs organically in the studio, “It’s ridiculously hard, and the stupidest part of recording. You can’t practice it ’cause Dave doesn’t like a demo. And then if I mess up, someone’s gonna want to try and keep that probably.”

A few minutes later, Jason Isbell is saying how excited he is to be recording the album. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done in my life outside of you and our daughter.” But Amanda is sitting right beside Jason, trying to convince Jason that he’s stressed out, and that he’s lying to himself.

Where Jason Isbell shows up to the studio in wrinkled shirts and a floppy baseball hat, seemingly unaware cameras are capturing every moment, Amanda Shires shows up like she’s ready for a gig, including wearing sunglasses in the studio and even during some of the interviews in the documentary, sipping on a glass of wine while Isbell’s sobriety is being tested due to the stress of the process. Overall, Amanda Shires presents an attitude where she seems to believe she should be given more attention, if not be the center of it.

“The 12 string guitar, jeez. If I was producing this record, I would take all the 12-string guitars and give them away,” Shires says at one point. But she’s not the producer, though she clearly wants to be. Amanda offers the first stress test for Isbell’s songs when he’s writing them at home, which is an important part of the process. But she seems to want to refuse to cede responsibility to others as recording moves forward, and comes across as undermining of Dave Cobb.

Anyone who’s spent time in the recording studio knows how stressful it can be, no matter which studio it is, or the recording process, or how many votive candles you light and place on pedestals. It’s important that everyone feels the freedom to voice an opinion, but it’s also important that everyone buy into whatever process has been decided upon ahead of time of how to record a given project. In the case of Jason Isbell and Reunions, Amanda Shires did not do this. And from an outside perspective, she actively started trying to erode that process.

In The New York Times and other accounts, it was Jason Isbell’s criticism of Amanda’s fiddle being too loud that was the linchpin for the conflict—the final straw where Shires was tired of being disrespected. But with the cameras rolling in the studio when that very moment happened, it comes across as innocuous, with Shires being overly sensitive about a passing quip that wasn’t meant to be personal. Of course, every relationship has its nuances that the public may not be able to pick up on. But the actual moment was not nearly as bad as it was portrayed in The New York Times in 2020.

Where Amanda Shires is at least somewhat right is that Jason Isbell probably was more stressed about making Reunions than he was leading on to. But Shires harping about that clearly didn’t help the situation. It hurt since this ultimately *SPOILER ALERT* results in Amanda Shires leaving Isbell and sleeping in a hotel, Isbell spending some nights himself in a hotel as opposed to home and not getting any sleep, and a relationship spiraling towards divorce in the middle of the Reunions studio sessions.

Of course, how much of this is reality, and how much of this is the film makers looking to create a narrative arc is a fair question. Or perhaps since Jason and Amanda have used their marital conflict to create interest in their music previously, maybe it’s part of an outright marketing effort. But Running With Our Eyes Closed feels sincere, and later in the film when Amanda Sires is reading an email she sent Jason when things were at their worst and she was full of emotion, it drives home the pain she was feeling in these moments, regardless of who was ultimately to blame.

This is not to throw Amanda Sires under the bus completely. Isbell clearly had some fault too. But this was Jason Isbell’s album, and Jason Isbell’s documentary. As both Jason and Amanda admit, she’s only an auxiliary member of The 400 Unit. This is important so that Shires isn’t thought of simply as Jason Isbell’s wife, or one of his band members. Amanda Shires is her own person and has her own career as an artist. And when she goes to make an album, it’s important for everyone to be subservient to her, just like Isbell has done on numerous occasions.

Another final and important observation about Running With Our Eyes Closed is that it came out way too late. At the latest, it should have been released in late 2022, before Jason Isbell started his album cycle with Weathervanes, and when it could be more of a complementary piece to Reunions. Obviously a film project like this takes time to get finalized, but it feels like a distraction from what Jason Isbell is doing now. He’s moved on from producer Dave Cobb, and some of the recording process that fed into the conflict with Amanda. Reliving that and the moments of the pandemic feel dated, and like a distraction. We’ve all moved on.

But overall, Running With Our Eyes Closed is an important portrayal of Jason Isbell. His handling of the conflicts that arise, and the few intimate moments with his daughter Mercy show off a side that his persona on Twitter doesn’t convey. Though many Jason Isbell fans seem to be completely isolated from the criticism of him due to the siloed nature of American media, he’s become an extremely, extremely polarizing character. But Isbell’s pointed and political opinions and statements are not part of this film.

Unless you’re a Jason Isbell fan or already have an HBO Max subscription, watching Running With Our Eyes Closed may not be essential viewing. But it does feel essential if you want to try and understand what makes one of this generation’s greatest songwriters, and most influential artists in country, rock, and Americana tick. It’s also important for you to see both sides of the conflict between Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, so you can come to conclusions yourself.

© 2024 Saving Country Music