Editor’s Note: This is a lengthy article. Look for subheadings to help navigate through if necessary.
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It is inarguable that Jason Isbell has become a transformative artist within the Americana music community over the last decade, evolving that sphere of the music world from a repository for artists from the country and roots space that are too good or too old for commercial country, to a place where younger artists can emerge to find sustainable or even commercially successful careers. Jason Isbell is one of the most venerated songwriters of our generation as well, and respected for this gift well beyond Americana’s borders.
But just like so many of the characters in today’s popular music space, Jason Isbell has transformed from one of the most universally-revered independent artists of our time, to being reviled by large swaths of the listening population for his active and often ostentatious displays of down-looking self-righteousness upon selected adversaries guised as political action.
It’s one thing to be politically outspoken, of which Jason Isbell most certainly is, and has every right to be, just as many other Americana artists have been over the years. But it’s another to regularly engage in severe judgement of others while overlooking one’s own iniquities and refusing to offer forgiveness in a way that can only be characterized as illiberal hypocrisy veering towards outright bigotry. Meanwhile, these actions are unequivocally hurting the causes Jason Isbell claims to be championing, while simultaneously polarizing the music space for everyone, turning off even supporters of his music, and his beliefs.
Instigating or inserting himself in very public culture war spats has at this point supplanted Jason Isbell’s music as the reason much of the media and some fans pay attention to the songwriter. His Twitter account is just as much as culture war follow as it is a musical one, if not more, with many of the journalists writing features on him specifically zooming in on Isbell’s Twitter activity as a focal point, with his music as an afterthought. This was underscored in a few recent features published about Jason Isbell, including a long-winded article entitled “Jason Isbell Is Tired of Country’s Love Affair with White Nostalgia” published in Buzzfeed in mid December of 2021.
The impetus for the article was Jason Isbell’s annual October residency at the Ryman Auditorium, a.k.a. the Mother Church of Country Music, and how on seven of the eight evenings in 2021, Isbell invited black women to open his shows. Along with his wife Amanda Shires opening the first night, Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Adia Victoria were also booked as performers.
Jason Isbell certainly deserves credit for using his platform to elevate these voices, as he has done for other notable and worthy artists over the years as part of this annual Ryman residency, and in other instances. And though the Buzzfeed article does spend grand amounts of time attempting to articulate the catalysts behind Jason Isbell’s motivation to book these women as openers—as well as making sure the opening performers from his Ryman residency aren’t overshadowed by Isbell himself—the ultimate motivation of the article was a rather naked attempt to undermine the credibility of the entirety of the country music genre, past and present, from a perspective decidedly outside of the country music fold, and under decidedly false pretenses, similar to so many of these think pieces published in the past year or so.
The False Assertions of the Buzzfeed Article
There are numerous assertions and purported facts within the Buzzfeed story that are verifiably false. This is one of the tricks to launching such viral stories and tweets. You say things that seem completely implausible, but present them as jaw-dropping facts, and it feeds the virality of the story, despite the verifiable lack of voracity of the claims.
For example, in the article while speaking about Morgan Wallen, the author of the Buzzfeed article Elamin Abdelmahmoud asserts,
Let us grant that there might be a path for Wallen to redeem himself. What could that look like? Perhaps he might “go through some steps and try to craft some kind of way where he can show us that he has learned from this experience,” Isbell said. “But not even that happened.”
Instead, what has happened is…nothing. Wallen pledged $500,000 to Black-led organizations. As of this fall, he has yet to donate much of his pledge. In many ways, it seems the appearance of redemption is more important than actually doing the work of proving you’ve changed.
But this is unarguably false. The Buzzfeed article links to an article in Complex to back up the false claim that Morgan Wallen has yet to donate much of his $500,000 pledge, but Complex isn’t even the originator of that false story. The story originally ran in Rolling Stone.
Furthermore, the original Rolling Stone article which asserted that Morgan Wallen only had donated $165,000 of his pledged $500,000 has since been debunked by both Saving Country Music and USA Today, with both outlets independently verifying that $400,000 had been donated by Morgan Wallen at that time, while an additional $100,000 had been earmarked to be donated by the end of 2021.
Rolling Stone was forced to offer a correction on their story, which perhaps Buzzfeed and its readers would have seen if they had linked to the original story on Morgan Wallen’s donations as they should have. In truth, the Rolling Stone article should have been stricken entirely, and a more public correction issued, since the entire premise of the article was false.
Instead—as we see time and time again—the information was left up to be parroted in the media Twitter echo chamber, and rebroadcast over and over as illustrated by Complex and dozens of other outlets, resulting in the information becoming concrete fact in the minds of the public. Then, months later, Buzzfeed comes in and continues to feed this false narrative by presenting this incorrect information once again.
The Twitter media echo chamber was illustrated even further when Morgan Wallen made a guest appearance on a song at the Grand Ole Opry on January 8th, 2022. In the ensuing days, the Rolling Stone article on Morgan Wallen’s purported delinquent donations was shared over 30 times just on Twitter as evidence no corrective effort had been expended by the singer.
And even beyond the Morgan Wallen financial pledge, for Jason Isbell and Buzzfeed to assert that Morgan Wallen did not attempt to go through any other corrective action after the N-word incident is categorically false as well. Morgan Wallen offered up numerous apologies that are not cited in the article whatsoever, and met with multiple leaders in the Black music community in an effort to learn from his mistake, including BeBe Winans, Kevin Liles, Eric Hutcherson, and others. One still may feel like what Morgan Wallen did was irredeemable or his actions have not been enough. But readers deserve context that was left out of the Buzzfeed article because it fit a presupposed narrative the article wanted to present.
Now, consider this happening with dozens of stories involving race and country music, involving thousands of rebroadcasts in other outlets at this point, whether it was the false narratives surrounding Lil Nas X’s removal from the Billboard country charts, the assertion that Mickey Guyton was the first black woman to play the ACM Awards in 2020, or that Wu Tang Clan was the first ever black act (or first hip-hop act) to ever play the Ryman Auditorium in 2018, along with many other examples.
All of these false media threads feed into a public perception about country music and race that is detached from reality, while the corrections, and the positive stories involving race and country music are not graced with the same virality as the negative ones, verifying falsities in the minds of many, especially in the media population, and particularly with media who reside outside of the country music fold. This is why ground-level knowledge of country music is so important to covering these stories, as it is with covering any genre or segment of culture, or any subject matter.
False Assertions About Country Music History
Fact checking the entire Jason Isbell Buzzfeed feature could become quite tedious, not just from the article’s length, but the amount of misinformation it contains. But just understand, the article must be read with a significant amount of skepticism, and understand that its author—though displaying a valiant effort at including a lot of information—is just not intimate enough with the country genre to speak with the type of authority on the subject that he asserts.
For example, the article says, “In the era of Charley Pride, country music’s biggest Black superstar, there was a pervading ethos that country music only has room for one Black star.”
This is another often parroted, though easily refutable claim that is not backed up by any context, evidence, or truth, that is ultimately a false representation of country music’s legacy, and demeaning to many of its Black contributors.
Clearly Black performers have been few and far between in country’s history, and it’s fair to assert that a racial component was partly in play. But Charley Pride was not country music’s only Black star until Darius Rucker. Along with Ray Charles releasing the iconic albums Modern Sounds in Country Music Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in 1962 that included numerous #1 singles on country radio at the time, Ray Charles also released five country albums for Columbia Records between 1983 and 1987 when Charley Pride was still very much active in popular country music as well. During this era of the career of Ray Charles, he performed country music predominantly, and was considered a country star.
Ray Charles scored a #1 album in country with his 1984 release Friendship, a #1 song in country with “Seven Spanish Angels,” and six total Top 20 singles in country just in this specific era, including the #6 charting “We Didn’t See a Thing” with George Jones and Chet Atkins (remember this song for future reference). This era of Ray Charles’ career is regularly overlooked, despite its top-level successes. Ray Charles was also just inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2021—a fact commonly left out when journalists rush to label country music as continuing its racist legacy into the modern era, and for being an “only one Black artist” genre.
During the heyday of Charley Pride, you also had a black woman, Anita Pointer, score a #2 song in country with Earl Thomas Conley in 1986 with “Too Many Times.” Linda Martell became the first black solo woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1970, she also appeared on Hee-Haw and other country programs, and charted multiple singles including “Color Him Father” and “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” in 1969. Stoney Edwards released eight country albums between 1971 and 1991, including six for Capitol Records, and released 26 singles, including the Top 20 hits “She’s My Rock” (1972) and “Mississippi You’re On My Mind” (1975). Stoney had a successful quarter century career in country music as a black man. O.B. McClinton also released eight albums between 1971 and 1988, and earned multiple Top 40 songs.
And these were just the Black artist that had impact in the mainstream. Asserting this false notion that Charley Pride was the only black country artist actively works to erase the legacy of these other important Black contributors. It’s certainly fair to characterize it as being more difficult for Black performers to succeed in country music over the years, and how there has been a dearth of Black country representation in the mainstream. But it can’t be assumed that any Black artists who doesn’t or didn’t make it on country radio is solely the victim of systemic racism.
White artists such as Tyler Childers and Cody Jinks have both scored multiple Certified Gold and Platinum singles in the last couple of years, illustrating their mainstream-level appeal and success, and have never received significant mainstream country radio play, awards, or other recognition from the mainstream country music industry. For every 1,000 performers that move to Nashville, only 1 makes it. And the vast majority of those failed hopefuls are white men and women.
But it’s not just the outright false information that is problematic in the Buzzfeed article. It’s the assertions made in the article without any examples or evidence. Maybe the most scandalous and aggressive of these claims comes early in the article, when the author asserts that “country music” as a monolith is, “…downright hostile to Black women.”
“Hostile” is a very strong word, and one that must be backed up with some sort of evidence, though none is given by Buzzfeed for this claim. Again, without questioning that it is most certainly harder for women, and black women especially to excel in the mainstream of country music, in the 13+ years of covering country music, and 7,000+ articles published—including many taking up the case for women and minorities in country music specifically—there is only one instance in my knowledge base where someone or something within the country music industry could be characterized as being “hostile” toward a black woman, beyond some random internet troll perhaps making social media posts. That would be when the band of Jason Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires called The Highwomen disinvited Mickey Guyton from a video shoot last minute.
In the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020 and the impending riots and protests, country artist Mickey Guyton became a focal point of media coverage as one of the few black women in the mainstream of country. She was subsequently asked to write an op/ed for Billboard about her experiences in country music, and how the country music community could improve to help artists of color. In the column, the most shocking revelation was not some systemic racism she had experienced in the country genre at some point. It was how she had been excluded and snubbed by her fellow women in the genre.
I left my ailing husband, who almost died from sepsis, in California just four days after his life-saving surgery because I had been invited to be a part of a female empowerment music video full of these same women. I arrived at the airport exhausted but excited. I checked my itinerary only to find that the entry had been deleted; I had been disinvited. The song was about supporting women in country, yet they disinvited the only charting African American woman in country music. Do they know? Don’t they see that I support them? Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in.
Though Mickey Guyton didn’t name the country supergroup The Highwomen or the video shoot for the group’s song “Redesigning Women” as the offending party at the time, it soon became evident this was the case. No public explanation from The Highwomen or anyone else was ever made as to why Mickey Guyton was disinvited, or what specifically happened to where she didn’t feel welcome to attend a video shoot she had flown across the country to be a part of. And if Mickey Guyton wasn’t there, why no women of color were involved in the video shoot at all.
To the credit of Highwomen member Maren Morris, she did address the situation indirectly on Twitter as a response to a fan, and confirmed that Guyton was supposed to be part of the video shoot, but with little detail about what happened. However, neither Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, nor The Highwomen collectively ever addressed the issue publicly, or directly, and no apology was given. We still don’t know why Mickey Guyton felt she was “disinvited” from the shoot, whether it was the fault of a miscommunication or otherwise. If there was a simple explanation such as a logistical snafu made by a staffer, they never shared it.
Four days before the Mickey Guyton op/ed ran in Billboard on June 9th, 2020, Amanda Shires posted on Twitter, “Wtf? How have I missed Mickey Guyton? Oh, because country music is a white boy club.” This means that despite all the rhetoric for inclusivity for women and minorities in country music, Amanda Shires didn’t even know who Mickey Guyton was eight years into her career, and many months after she had been disinvited from the Highwomen video shoot. But instead of putting the onus on herself for not knowing about the only major label-signed black woman, she blamed country music’s “white boy club.”
For a more in-depth investigation into the Mickey Guyton disinvitation, CLICK HERE.
This was not the only incident involving The Highwomen. Jason Isbell was a principle participant in the band’s self-titled album from 2019. Along with playing guitar on the album, Isbell was also the songwriter of one of the album’s songs called “If She Ever Leaves Me” with Amanda Shires and Chris Tompkins. The group presented it as the first ever gay country song to the press and in promotional copy.
“Me and Amanda were in Jackson Hole, and I was on the elliptical and I thought about this project and went, ‘What if Brandi sang it?’” Jason Isbell said in a 2019 feature on the supergroup for Rolling Stone. “And I started going, ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’ I called Amanda [Shires] and went ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’”
Despite the decades-long lineage of gay country songs and artists in country music—and the participation of Brandi Carlile in the project (who is gay herself and should know better, along with the other members)—Rolling Stone, the writer of the feature Marissa R. Moss, and the media at large allowed The Highwomen to market this song as the first gay country song, perpetrating the erasure of other gay artists and their contributions to the country genre.
The erasure of marginalized performers to make other artists or media members to appear as groundbreakers, or in some cases, white saviors, is common within country and Americana music’s protected elitist class. Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland is regularly praised for her advocacy for women and the marginalized in country music, even receiving the inaugural CMT Equal Play Award in 2020 for her efforts. However, Jennifer Nettles and Sugarland were part of arguably the most exclusionary moment in modern country history when the duo parted ways with the original third member of the group, Kristen Hall right as Sugarland was coming to prominence.
Kristen Hall is gay, and is believed to have been removed in 2005 because she didn’t fit the image Sugarland and the label wanted to present at that time. Kristen Hall later sued Sugarland over the split. Similar to The Highwomen, Jennifer Nettles has never had to answer or apologize for what happened to Kristen Hall. On the contrary, she is regarded as a hero and champion of marginalized voices in country music, just like The Highwomen, and Jason Isbell.
Jason Isbell Says George Jones Does Not Deserve Redemption
The portion of the Buzzfeed article that drew the most ire from country music fans was Jason Isbell’s pronouncement that country legend George Jones should find no redemption for some of his actions over his career.
“There’s a lot of shit that George did that was not cool, shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from. But everything ended well, according to the country music’s narrative … I don’t mean to pick on George Jones. I think he’s the greatest country singer that ever lived. But he did a lot of really, really terrible, terrible shit.”
The Buzzfeed goes on to claim that, “Jones has a well-documented history of violence, misogyny, and, racism.”
But once again, these claims deserve context. For the “racism” claim, the Buzzfeed author Elamin Abdelmahmoud doesn’t link to an article or some other verified source, he links to a tweet that selectively quotes a portion of Charley Pride’s obituary in The Washington Post where it says that George Jones once painted “KKK” on the side of Charley Pride’s car. Why did the Buzzfeed writer link to a tweet as opposed to the actual Washington Post article? Because in the Washington Post article it contextualizes that the incident happened while the two entertainers were hanging out together, trying to match each other drink for drink, just like the original Rolling Stone article on Morgan Wallen’s donations contextualizes that he actually made them.
Charley Pride and George Jones were close friends. From a modern perspective, of course painting “KKK” on the side of Charley Pride’s car would be considered scandalous. But as Charley Pride underscored in his own words as part of his 1994 memoir Pride, it was done as a practical joke, not as a racist act, nor did he take it as one. It wasn’t considered problematic to Charley Pride, and the only reason we even know about the incident is because Charley Pride used it as an illustration to emphasize the camaraderie he kept with many of his country music contemporaries at the time. They were close enough that they could kid each other about such matters. George Jones and Charley Pride recorded a song together called “I’ll Bring The Bottle.” The two once intimated their friendship as part of a television segment on TNN. And as was mentioned previously, George Jones also recorded the hit “We Didn’t See a Thing” with Ray Charles.
There is no credible evidence that George Jones was a racist, or specifically racist towards Charley Pride. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary when properly contextualized. Using a tweet to attempt to characterize George Jones as a racist just underscores how Twitter actively works to obfuscate the truth from the public by eliminating important context, and how journalists use Twitter to validate their presupposed perspectives as opposed to rigorously challenging them before presenting them to the public.
As for the claims that George Jones had a history of violence and misogyny, these are more valid, and inexcusable, though they also must be addressed within the context of George Jones suffering from diagnosed mental illness, including being institutionalized multiple times throughout his career, along with his wife Tammy Wynette suffering a similar fate. Obviously, this doesn’t justify anything, but again, it’s important context to understand the complexity of the George Jones character. George Jones had known mental health issues. This has not been hidden from the public.
But what is most misleading is the claim by Jason Isbell that “everything ended well” for George Jones, as if he never faced consequences for his actions. The idea that George Jones wasn’t admonished by his peers, ridiculed by the public, and punished by the industry for his misdeeds over many years is incorrect. His nickname “No Show Jones” was not a term of endearment. It was coined by angry fans who’d been stood up by the singer on so many occasions, it became synonymous with his name.
But yes, after George Jones sobered up and found a sense of equilibrium later in life, many fans did go on to forgive him, not because they were willing to overlook all of his misdeeds over the years, but because they believed in a path of mercy and redemption, which George Jones became an example of by eventually sobering up, finding the straight and narrow, and sticking with it in the latter part of his life. This is what forgiveness is all about.
Forgiveness For Me, But Not For Thee
This pattern of being unwilling to offer forgiveness is a common theme for Jason Isbell, while expecting forgiveness for his own trespasses. Jason Isbell was kicked out of the band The Drive-By Truckers due to excessive drinking and the behavioral issues it created. Isbell played with the band for six years between 2001 and 2007. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers once said, “Some people get drunk and become kind of sweet… Jason wasn’t one of those people.” Isbell’s first marriage to Shonna Tucker who also played bass for the band during the era ended in divorce. Public spats between the two fueled the rumor mill within the Drive-By Truckers fan base during that time period of the band.
Early on in Jason Isbell’s career, it was clear to many that he was an astute songwriter and a skilled guitar player. But his drinking caused issues on and off the stage. In one public spat early in his solo career, Jason Isbell went after Dierks Bentley for allegedly ripping off his song “In A Razor Town” with a song called “Home,” publicly calling Dierks Bentley a “douchebag.” The accusations were refuted by Dierks and his co-writer, and later deemed to be unfounded.
Due to the Dierks Bentley incident and many others, some of Jason Isbell’s closest friends held an intervention for him. It was led in part by alt-country/rock artist Ryan Adams, who had found his own recent sobriety. Ryan Adams was also the individual who was originally slotted to produce Jason Isbell’s breakout solo album Southeastern from 2013 before a scheduling conflict got in the way, and producer Dave Cobb stepped into that role.
Ryan Adams was there to offer forgiveness and guidance to Jason Isbell in his time of need, but when revelations came out via The New York Times of previous behavior by Ryan Adams towards love interests, that understanding was not reciprocated.
Long time Ryan Adams friend Lucinda Williams wrote a song about him after the New York Times revelations came out, and tried to offer him a path to forgiveness, and to understanding for the audience. Called “Shadows and Doubts,” Lucinda said the song confronts “our quick-to-judge, social-media-led society.”
“Look, I know Ryan, and I know he’s fucked up a lot of things,” Lucinda Williams said. “He’s one of those people who you can love but he can also piss you off. God knows he’s made enough mistakes. This is looking at somebody who basically fucked things up and trying to deal with seeing that person in that place but still being concerned about them. I still love Ryan.”
Jason Isbell on the other hand distanced from Ryan Adams. “I was disappointed in myself for not realizing that those kinds of things were happening,” Isbell said. “And the situation with Ryan and with the Times story made me rethink my friendships with other men and how much we’re actually sharing with each other. And I think it really helped me redefine, you know, what kind of a friend I want to be to somebody.”
The above quote comes from a GQ profile on Isbell titled “Jason Isbell’s Redemption Songs.” The profile talks about how Jason Isbell was afforded and found a path to redemption in his career from his earlier transgressions. But strangely, Jason Isbell seems to be unwilling to afford that same path to Morgan Wallen, George Jones, Ryan Adams, or country music.
Most certainly, the revelations about Ryan Adams from The New York Times were troubling, as are the revelations about George Jones, or Morgan Wallen. But in the case of Ryan Adams, they basically boiled down to interviewing ex-lovers about past grievances, while the worst accusation that Ryan exchanged inappropriate texts with an underage girl were dismissed by the FBI (the girl had lied about her age to Ryan, who specifically asked).
Perhaps a similar game could have been run on Jason Isbell, with a journalist interviewing Isbell’s ex-wife and other love interest before his sobriety, the other members of the Drive-By Truckers, enumerating the specific reasons why Isbell was asked to leave the band, and why Ryan Adams and others felt they needed to intervene in his personal life. But instead, Jason Isbell has become not just insulated from criticism by the media, the media simultaneously uses his trespasses as a way to sell his music as a redemption story.
Simultaneous with the release of Jason Isbell’s last original studio album Reunions in 2020 was a detailed feature in The New York Times. The entire theme of the feature is built around how Jason Isbell had become so obsessed with the recording of the album, he became verbally abusive towards his wife Amanda Shires, and a spat between the two blew up to the point where Shires felt the need to move out of the house temporarily, with Isbell taking swigs of mouthwash, testing his sobriety.
Of course, the level of conflict in the situation reportedly did not rise to anywhere near the caustic relationships of George Jones or Ryan Adams. It was one of those conflicts that can arise even within an otherwise healthy marriage. But the fact that this feature was written by The New York Times to endear Jason Isbell to the public—the same outlet that lambasted Ryan Adams and ended his career—and that the audience is tasked to look past Isbell’s unseemly behavior to somehow see the passion he had for his music project and forgive his personal missteps speaks to the kind of favorable perspective Isbell receives from the press, while others actively asking for forgiveness and redemption for past missteps are used by Jason Isbell and the press to signal Isbell’s virtuosity. It’s hypocrisy by definition.
The Twitter Dynamic
The media’s obsession with Jason Isbell, and its willingness to view him through a slanted prism is specifically due to his Twitter presence. In 2018, Rolling Stone wrote a specific article called, How Jason Isbell Constantly Wins At Twitter. The big Buzzfeed feature on Jason Isbell in December 2021 wasn’t the only feature written around his October residency at the Ryman Auditorium. Another feature in The Undefeated called The Black Vanguard in White Utopias states plainly in the second paragraph, “Twenty minutes and two COVID-19 checkpoints later, I am finally squeezed into a wooden pew at the mother church of country music because Jason Isbell is very good at Twitter.”
As the mother brain of American media, Twitter creates an outsized influence upon media members, which is one of the reasons Jason Isbell is often given such favorable press coverage, offered baseline forgiveness for misdeeds past and present, and his assertions and actions aren’t given the same rigorous testing other prominent voices in entertainment are subject to. Jason Isbell is the master of diversion, signaling virtue on Twitter and elsewhere, while his actions often work towards the contrary.
In September of 2021 as the Delta Variant was surging and Jason Isbell had a full tour booked, he interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, which earned him ample features and brownie points from the press for his forward thinking approach to touring during the pandemic era. Jason Isbell also was very outspoken about his requirements that all audience members show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, which was a requirement many venues and events were already adopting at the time. In the interview, Jason Isbell asks Dr. Fauci, “What else can I do to keep the audience safe?”
Dr. Fauci responded, “What you can do as an entertainer, maybe favor, which you probably do, outdoor concerts, as opposed to indoor concerts. I think that’s probably the most important thing because it really is true that the risk of infection in an indoor, not optimally-ventilated place is dramatically higher likelihood of getting infected to an outdoor one. So I think the best thing that you can do.”
But instead of following this guidance, Jason Isbell in some instances did the exact opposite. The majority of the venues on the Jason Isbell 2021 fall tour were indoor settings, including the 8-night residency at the Ryman Auditorium from which the lengthy features from Buzzfeed and The Undefeated came from. In certain instances, Jason Isbell even moved events from outdoors to indoors, including moving his Fort Worth event at the outdoor Panther Island Pavilion, to the indoor Billy Bob’s Texas.
Nonetheless, Jason Isbell was praised for his leadership when it came to COVID-19, when it truth, acts such as Florida Georgia Line who canceled their tours entirely likely did more for public health, while not receiving any of the press praise. It wasn’t because Isbell was doing anything exceptional by requiring vaccines or a negative test, it’s because he was making such an ostentatious display of his virtuosity, including ultimately lying about one non-profit outdoor venue—The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion in Houston—being unwilling to implement his vaccine mandate as opposed to unable to, and later attacking the daughter of one of the non-profit’s employees under false pretense on Twitter, resulting in the daughter being bullied by Jason Isbell fans.
It’s Jason Isbell’s Twitter presence that has won him the latitude to often engage in hypocritical behavior, yet not face criticism similar to how he criticizes others. It’s also what has made Jason Isbell the vessel for many in the media to attack country music as an institution, even though by Isbell’s own assessment, he’s not even a part of the country music community.
Jason Isbell and Country Music
Remember, the lengthy mid December feature in Buzzfeed was titled, “Jason Isbell Is Tired of Country’s Love Affair with White Nostalgia.” But within the article itself and on many other occasions throughout Jason Isbell’s career, he’s insisted that he’s not a country artist. Isbell says in Buzzfeed, “I grew up in the country. I appreciate certain aspects of country music as a songwriter. But I’m in a rock’n’ roll band, and that’s how I look at it.” And later he says, “When people call me a country musician, I don’t mind it necessarily, depending on the point they’re trying to make. But there never should have been ‘country music’ to begin with.”
The country music community has made multiple attempts to build bridges with Jason Isbell over the years, and bring him into the fold. And they’ve done this arguably not in spite of his ideologies being counter to many in the country music community, but because they are counter to prevailing thought in country music, understanding that Isbell can help the greater roots community be more inclusive to other ideologies and perspectives.
In 2017, the Country Music Hall of Fame announced Jason Isbell as the institution’s Artist in Residence—an accolade that is reserved for only the very top of critically-acclaimed performers, and commonly over the years has been a gateway to full Hall of Fame induction. For a relatively younger artist such as Jason Isbell to earn such a privilege is relatively unprecedented.
Also in 2017, Jason Isbell’s album The Nashville Sound was nominated for the CMA’s Album of the Year, which was an unprecedented moment for a non major label-signed artist outside of the country mainstream, and something not afforded to equally critically-acclaimed, but more commercially successful independent artists recently such as Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. They chose Jason Isbell because they saw him as an emerging pillar of the Nashville music community. Incidentally, in 2013, Jason Isbell was chosen as Saving Country Music‘s Artist of the Year.
But Isbell seemed uninterested in taking advantage of the influence he could have sown within the country music community through these openings and platforms. He did not attend the 2017 CMA Awards, and was touring through Europe at the time. Ultimately, he did not win the CMA for Album of the Year, but the nomination did afford Isbell a lifetime membership to the CMA, which meant he could actively participate in the nomination and award voting process in perpetuity. But in 2020, Isbell renounced his membership because of the CMA’s appearance of lax COVID protocols during their presentation, and for not honoring John Prine and others from a lack of an In Memoriam segment.
Country music had made every effort to extend a handshake to Jason Isbell. But as he confirms to Buzzfeed, he had no desire for the friendship, seeing the country music community as beneath him. “It was like: Congratulations, you’re in our club. Well, I never asked to be in your fucking club,” Isbell says.
Yet somehow, Jason Isbell is still given latitude and a platform by the media to speak as the conscience of country, and to criticize a community he has no desire to be a part of, when he could have stood within it, and actively worked towards the changes he purports to want to see with it.
Instead, Isbell seems content to use country as a refraction point for his own inequities, to distance from his whiteness and privilege that could be used as an attack vector against him by the progressive community, while also enriching himself both in wealth and prestige by building his brand around being a counter to country. This is what has made him so appealing to political functionaries within the media space who regularly present Jason Isbell as the country music ideal, while also having to admit he’s not country. It’s also what has made Jason Isbell’s political actions inert, if no counter-productive. Instead of using the platform of his music to help broaden perspectives, he is the spearhead to polarizing the roots music space, and making the gulf between conservative country, and liberal Americana even more yawning, and contentious, eroding the capability of Americana to influence country, and causing country music to become more conservative over the last couple of years.
Country Music as the Real Target
“Nostalgia is a beast of fiction,” says author Elamin Abdelmahmoud, boiling down to the underlying point of the Jason Isbell Buzzfeed feature, which is to erode the credibility of the entire country genre. “It’s an act of selective editing, of carving out just the bits you want, in order to tell the story you want to tell. It’s the kind of forgetting rampant in country music. Seeking nostalgia is seeking a mirage, for its beauty, yes, but also for its safety.”
It’s fashionable at the moment to admonish country music. Affluence and Academia love to use country music and poor agrarian whites as an inflection point to refract the guilt they feel from their privilege.
But the reason people listen to country music—or most any music for that matter—is for the entertainment value, for the escape, to decompress, to unwind—or specifically with country music—to find comradery with the fellow broken hearted. Music is a joy, and a gift of life. It doesn’t have to be an intellectual exercise, or an act of self-immolation like certain ideologues who wish to polarize every aspect of society want to make it. It doesn’t mean music fans overlook or somehow condone past or present transgressions by country music artists or the genre’s institutions when they choose to partake in it. They’re just partaking in the joy of music.
When country music fans enjoy the music of an artist such as George Jones, they certainly aren’t doing so at the acceptance of his worst behavior, let alone its celebration. They see how Jones struggled with demons greater than their own, and ultimately overcame them. This creates inspiration.
The final Top 40 hit for George Jones came in 1999 by the way of his song “Choices,” written by Billy Yates and Mike Curtis.
I’ve had choices since the day that I was born
There were voices that told me right from wrong
If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today
Living and dying with the choices I’ve made
I was tempted, by an early age I found
I liked drinkin’, oh, and I never turned it down
There were loved ones but I turned them all away
Now I’m living and dying with the choices I’ve made
I guess I’m payin’ for the things that I have done
If I could go back, oh, Lord knows I’d run
But I’m still losin’ this game of life I play
Losing and dying with the choices I’ve made
I’ve had choices since the day that I was born
There were voices that told me right from wrong
If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today
Living and dying with the choices I’ve made
Yes, George Jones is considered a hero by many country music fans. But he never wanted anyone to overlook his inequities, nor did he ever try to hide them. All he asked for was redemption for overcoming them, and forgiveness by apologizing for them.
Since no human is perfect, forgiveness and a path to redemption is something we all must yearn for. It is an essential of a liberal society. But strangely, when it comes to culture war issues, we’ve forgotten how important it is to offer forgiveness. Some petition for the alleviation of sentences on the incarcerated, sometimes including violent criminals, but can’t extend that same mercy to people they see as being on the other side of the cultural divide, and counter to their ideologies. They must be eradicated from society.
Country music fans were more than happy to forgive Jason Isbell for his early trespasses in his career, and embrace him as a member of their community in spite of a lack of sonic similarities. Country music saw the value not just in Jason Isbell’s playing, and his singing, and his writing, but in his very soul. Country music looked beyond his personal missteps. Everyone can see that Jason Isbell is an intelligent and impassioned person. But in some respects, he’s lost grip on his sobriety. Drunk on the influence he sows on Twitter, and the Dopamine hit each viral tweet affords, and the attention it brings to him, he’s once again hurting others around him unnecessarily with self-righteous behavior, causing undue conflict, and lashing out at the shortcomings of others to distract from his own.
And even still, country music and its fans should be willing to extend forgiveness and understanding to Jason Isbell now, just like they did for George Jones, lest they be hypocrites. But first, Jason Isbell would have to instigate the work to understand that we are all equal, with motes in our eyes, yearning for redemption from past wrongs, and for forgiveness from our peers.
That is one of the eternal truths found in country music.