The Confounding Dichotomy of Jason Isbell

photo: Alysse Gafkjen

‘Tis the season for servile and obsequious puff pieces placed in the media by sycophantic journalists in the overt service of lobbying for artists to be considered for The Grammy Awards, which officially opened its first round of voting on Wednesday, October 11th.

In years past, these kinds of subjective and underhanded features would slide into media coverage around this time under the guise of promoting a new single or album, or perhaps a concert appearance. But this year, this whole exercise has become aggressively open-faced in a way that calls outright for ethical scrutiny since these efforts so boldly undertake this influence peddling in a manner we don’t even see for country music’s much more commercially-oriented CMA or ACM Awards.

Straight up advertisements like the ones published ahead of the CMAs and ACMs at least are clear and obvious that they’re coming from the artist camps or their labels. But the approach we’re seeing for the Grammys in 2023 is being laundered through what is supposed to be objective journalism, even though these articles are basically advertising copy presented in a manner that the industry really needs to recon with, and now.

Lainey Wilson and Allison Russell have both been the beneficiaries of such articles in Rolling Stone recently. But the most clear and obvious example of this is a feature on Jason Isbell, published in the Los Angeles Times for optimal exposure to Grammy voters since the Grammys are located in L.A as well. Written by Marissa R. Moss, the official title of the article is, “The Radical Empathy of Jason Isbell.” But the URL of the article is “jason-isbell-grammys-weathervanes,” leaving no question to the motivation behind the piece.

Most definitely, Jason Isbell and his new album Weathervanes with his backing band The 400 Unit is worthy of Grammy consideration. Most anyone with an objective ear within the Americana realm would conclude this. Many regard Weathervanes as a revitalization of Isbell’s landmark career that he commenced in earnest with his album Southeastern released 10 years ago this year. Not to say his other albums were subpar, but like Southeastern, Weathervanes feels defining, both for Isbell’s career, and for this era in Americana music when Isbell reigns at the very top of the genre with Brandi Carlile.

For certain, when Saving Country Music goes to choose nominees for Album of the Year and Song of the Year sometime after the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, Weathervanes and songs like “King of Oklahoma” and “Cast Iron Skillet” are sure to be heavily considered. Though taste is always subjective, Jason Isbell’s talents as a songwriter are so strong, that strength can almost be considered as an empirical truth.

But for some, none of this matters. They have sworn Jason Isbell’s music off wholesale and entirely, no matter the critical praise it receives, or even their own personal regard for it. Though in certain circles this revelation may seen strange due the siloed nature of social media and society at large, Jason Isbell has easily become one of the most polarizing individuals in all of roots music, and American music in general. And it’s not entirely or even predominantly due to songs like “White Man’s World” that include distinctly political and polarizing perspectives, or even specific political stances he’s taken.

This fierce polarization is primarily due to Isbell’s public persona and X/Twitter presence where he regularly alienates his own fans by speaking down to them, and passing severe judgement upon them for their opinions not aligning with his own. For certain, some of the people who’ve either found themselves directly in the ire of Isbell for perhaps telling him to “shut up and sing,” or that just happen to be irreconcilable racists or victims of demagoguery don’t exactly deserve our sympathy or even regard for this judgement from Isbell.

But there are also large swaths of the country and Americana-listening public that are uncaring of Jason Isbell’s opinions or that may even agree with them, but are simply sick of Isbell’s judgemental smugness and double standards. It’s not necessarily what Jason Isbell believes. It’s how he wields those beliefs, and the hypocrisy he’s evidenced on numerous occasions. Some are even disappointed or furious with Isbell because he presents such a decidedly illiberal perspective for someone who purports to hold progressive views, sullying the integrity of such views since he’s such a public figure.

There is no better or more stark illustration of this Jason Isbell dichotomy than what is evidenced in this new Los Angeles Times feature, despite it’s participants seeming to be completely unaware of the gross contradiction the article contains, even as this contradiction passes right under their noses.

The quote from Isbell that was chosen to crown the article and to convey the crux of it to the public through social media reads, “I like running off people who are closed-minded. I’m not trying to sway them to one side politically, I’m just trying to tell them my story.” 

Jason Isbell has said similar things in the past, proclaiming that he’s got plenty of fans, and doesn’t want people who do not share his opinions to listen to his music. But herein lies the ultimate problem. Politics is the science of building majorities or at least pluralities by persuading people to your side of the aisle. “Running people off” is directly counter-productive to that project.

All of this is inarguable. But ironically and quizzically, in this same Los Angeles Times feature, the author Marissa R. Moss, performer Gillian Welch, and Jason Isbell himself attempt to convince you that he can and does use his music to reshape hearts and minds too. In the second half of the article, it states,

For a while, [Jason Isbell] would strategically place songs like “White Man’s World,” where he accounts for his own privilege, next to crowd-pleasers like “Outfit” in the live set. The idea was that if you went to the bathroom during the former, you’d miss the latter. Isbell chuckles at the memory. “You’d see ‘em scrambling back to their seats,” Isbell says. His hope, though, is that more people than not will stick around through the discomfort to give their assumptions or biases a second thought.

“Jason opens doors for people, to let them see and understand the world in ways they would not have been able to without his songs,” says Gillian Welch, an artist whom Isbell proclaims is his favorite songwriter. “I think specificity is the key to universality, and Jason possesses that key.”

But wait, the defining quote from Isbell in the Los Angeles Times article clearly states, “I like running off people who are closed-minded. I’m not trying to sway them to one side politically.”

So which one is it? Jason Isbell and his surrogates would like to think it is both. Saying he has no time for the close-minded is an erudite flex from Isbell, as if he’s uncaring that he can’t convince others to his side, or he refuses to socialize with the unwashed who don’t share his views. But he also wants credit for reshaping hearts and minds, because after all, this is the ultimate goal of activism and opinion-sharing.

For anyone who is paying attention, they know that the people Isbell is assuaging to his side at this point are somewhere near zero. His online persona has become so toxic, he’s simply preaching to a choir, and pandering to a constituency. And it’s all because he’s squandered much of his good will with individuals who he may disagree with by being an online bully, refusing to admit mistakes, and being unwilling to dole out forgiveness to others.

Since one of Isbell’s primary claims to fame has been dunking on people to rack up engagement in the X/Twitter algorithm and earn brownie points with the media, Jason Isbell has misused the greatest asset of the music medium, which is to share the human experience in a way that others can relate to and use to broaden their perspective.

This is not the first time Saving Country Music has attempted to point this out, and not to “attack” Isbell, but in an attempt to be pragmatic and constructive with meaningful criticism culled from observing and interacting with music fans, and listening to why many fans say they’re turned off by the Alabama native.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t still people out there who disagree with Jason Isbell, or find his public persona annoying or unhelpful, but still enjoy his music. The advice that Saving Country Music has been giving out for many years now is to separate the art from the artist. Isbell has in turned called the author of this article a “coward” who is too scared to admit his support for Trump—because anyone you that may disagree or challenge you must have voted for the person you didn’t for President in the Jason Isbell worldview. Base name calling completely divested from intellectual insight or nuance is why Isbell has become so ineffective as a change maker.

In any other context, an objective journalist might call out the completely diametric perspectives shared by Isbell and others in the LA Times article. But in this instance, Marissa R. Moss highlights it, because the entire point of the article is to sell the personality of Jason Isbell to Grammy voters. The music is decidedly secondary to conveying a set of political values that will align with the Grammy voting bloc.

All of this also begs the question as to why we’re highlighting Jason Isbell and lobbying for his Grammy consideration in a major media publication in the first place. Weathervanes will be nominated for Grammy Awards, and perhaps multiple ones, while songs from the album might be as well. Jason Isbell will also likely win. This was the setup for Jason Isbell before the L.A. Times article was even published, though maybe they have their eyes on the all-genre prizes of Album of the Year and Song of the Year, and feel Isbell needs an extra push.

But Jason Isbell and the writer Marissa R. Moss are supposed to be allies to women, Black and Brown artists, and LGBT performers in music. So why expend such valuable ink and attention in the days before Grammy consideration opens on a white straight male who’s likely to be nominated and win anyway? That seems to be a decidedly un-Jason Isbell thing to do.

Why not highlight that artists that probably should win Grammy Awards, but may never be considered because their name recognition is not nearly as strong as someone like Jason Isbell who already has four Grammy Awards and has never lost in any category he’s been nominated in? An artist like Gabe Lee comes to mind, who released a stellar record this year called Drink The River, or Allison Russell, who was nominated for multiple awards in 2022 and lost to Jon Batiste, seeming to get hosed similar to how Isbell got hosed in 2013 after releasing Southeastern.

This isn’t to say that the media or anyone else doesn’t have a right to voice their opinion on who should or shouldn’t win Grammy Awards, or help voters navigate a crowded field. But it should not be in a way that attempts to comes across as an objective piece of journalism, and about someone who is a front-runner for the awards to begin with. This isn’t the CMAs or ACMs. The Grammys are a non-profit organization, and one of the few awards that will highlight artists who don’t always dominate the national narrative like Jason Isbell does due to his favorable and fawning press coverage.

Instead of over-inflating Jason Isbell’s persona, perhaps Marissa R. Moss should have challenged Jason Isbell as to why he deserves Grammy Awards as opposed to another artist. Instead of only talking about his music in the context of his political alignment, why didn’t she ask him about the sonic aspects of Weathervanes, his intention to move more into the rock space with the album, and how he produced it himself to positive results? The Grammy Awards aren’t supposed to reward personalities, but the art these personalities create.

Even better, perhaps Marissa R. Moss could have pressed Jason Isbell about the false assertion both he and Brandi Carlile made around the release of The Highwomen album when they both claimed the song “If She Ever Leaves Me” was the first ever gay country song. Moss was the writer on the Rolling Stone feature where this assertion that erased the landmark accomplishments of a dozen or so country artists before was first forwarded.

Instead we get mellifluous lines describing Isbell’s property in the very white and exclusive area south and west of Nashville in the LA Times piece such as, “Life is blooming everywhere on the Nashville-area farm where singer-songwriter Jason Isbell resides with his wife, the musician Amanda Shires, and their daughter Mercy: a garden of Monarch chrysalises about to hatch, a couple of fresh baby chicks, vegetables climbing their trellises.”

But few if anyone is talking about the ethical concerns this Jason Isbell feature in the Los Angeles Times presents. What they really want to talk about, and what’s been made into delicious click-bait is Isbell’s quote about Oliver Anthony.

“Buddy, there’s a reason you just don’t jump in the f— pool,” Isbell says. “There’s something there. But that’s the song you should have written when you were 16, and then, when you were 19, you should have rewritten it without the part about hating people on welfare. And then when you are 20 you throw the whole thing out and write another song.”

Isbell is fair to criticize the somewhat amateur and undercooked nature of the song. But he seems to gloss over the fact that “Rich Men North of Richmond” shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and will be one of the biggest songs in all of music in 2023. It’s probably pretty safe to say that Oliver Anthony is glad he didn’t “throw the whole thing out.”

Jason Isbell has hob nobbed with Bill Clinton on his podcast, and hung out at The White House with Joe Biden. Isbell lives in one of the most exclusive areas in the American South and flies around on private jets. He’s certainly leading a charmed life, and has gone from a poor kid with divorced parents in rural Alabama to an undeniable participant in elite society. But it’s the type of elite, parental attitude that Jason Isbell, Marissa R. Moss, and outlets like The Los Angeles Times push toward that made “Rich Men North of Richmond” so resonant with so many people.

Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do

Jason Isbell is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. He probably deserves any and all Grammy accolades coming his way. But what are awards when comparing them to the important work of making the world a better place to live for everyone? Open-mindedness is a two-way street. The LA Times article and Gillian Welch are right in saying that Jason Isbell is in a unique position and has a unique opportunity to reshape the hearts and minds of many people through his music.

But unfortunately, Jason Isbell continues to squander that opportunity by instead succumbing to the same online bullying that plagues much of modern society—getting gamed by the dopamine response of social media algorithms like so many well-intentioned, but ineffective change makers who ultimately are just speaking into echo chambers. Meanwhile, individuals like Oliver Anthony are affecting true change by finding their way into open minds, for better or worse, and are doing so very likely without any Grammy help.

© 2024 Saving Country Music