Zac Brown on Jason Isbell: “He’s Badass. I Want His Fan Base to Grow.”
Rewind back to January when Americana fans were left agog after tuning into the college football championship game pitting Oregon against Ohio State, and hearing a fairly-obscure but heart-wrenching Jason Isbell song called “Dress Blues” emanating from a live performance of the Zac Brown Band. The clashing of two music worlds—the top of mainstream country, and the humble but dedicated following of Americana—made for a unique musical moment and a mixing of fan bases.
Zac Brown went on to cover Isbell’s “Dress Blues” on his recent release Jekyll + Hyde. Though it was fairly common back on the 70’s through the 90’s to have bigger artists cover songs from alt-country voices such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Lucinda Williams, the “Dress Blues” cover is one of the first examples of the newer generation of Americana artists garnering wider exposure through the vehicle of bigger stars.
“Jason Isbell wrote ‘Dress Blues’ as he writes a lot of songs. That dude might write the saddest songs in the world,” Zac Brown says in a new interview about the song. “So eloquently written, and accessible where everybody can still listen and understand it, but vivid. And it happened to a friend of his, and he wrote it about him. And I hear that song, and I wanted more people to hear that song. I wanted the soldiers and their families … if anything I think that song’s going to help people grieve. Because however you’ve socked it away, if you really listen to that, I mean he did an exceptional job.”
“Dress Blues” was initially released on Isbell’s first solo album after leaving the Drive By Truckers called Sirens in the Ditch from 2007. “Dress Blues” is a reference to the formal dress of Marines that many are buried in after returning to home from war. It was written about Cpl. Matthew D. Conley. Zac Brown changed the arrangement of the song by adding “Taps” in the middle.
“Putting the arrangement of “Taps” in the middle of it was really important to me,” says Zac Brown. “I lost a good buddy of mine. We called him Old John, and he was like a surrogate grandad to me. He was a knife maker. He taught me how to make the first knife I ever made. He lived next door to my buddy Scott and I. We lived in a singlewide trailer, and it was his grandad’s, and he lived next door to us when I was in college. He was a great man. A great man to me. When he passed away, I went to his funeral, and I’d held it together. I was sad for everybody because they had lost their grandfather and father. I held it together until they started playing “Taps.” And I couldn’t believe how much that just like ‘poof’, brought it out. That to me was powerful. So I was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to try to use that.’ We’ve got to combine what Isbell did with ‘Dress Blues’ and how much he killed it lyrically and melodically, and then we’ve got to add the emotion of ‘Taps’ altogether in one thing, and try to just really dig down and do it.”
And Zac Brown was conscious about what he was doing by putting a Jason Isbell cover on his new record. It wasn’t just about selecting a good song to record.
“Proud to be singing one of Jason’s songs. He’s badass. So every record we cover one song. And this was the cover off of this record, was one that I felt like was kind of obscure to the world, known well by his fans, but I want his fan base to grow. And any of ours that don’t belong to his, they’re going to be fans of his too. I feel like I was paying some love forward to Jason, and a tip of the hat to the soldiers because I haven’t written a song that that’s meaningful yet.”
Jason Isbell has his own new record coming out, Something More Than Free through Thirty Tigers on July 17th. It’s his followup to 2013’s Southeastern, which won Americana Album of the Year in 2014.
May 30, 2015 @ 10:52 am
I agree with you, Zac. Jason is B-A, and I also want his fan base to grow.
Additionally Zac, I’d like your fan base to shrink.
May 30, 2015 @ 10:54 am
Again I don’t understand why so many people that comment on this site hate Zac Brown and call him a “sellout”. You can hate his new album or all of his music in general, but he is not a “sellout”. He’s a down to earth good guy who truly wants to make good music. “Beautiful Drug” doesn’t change anything. He said he wanted to make a club song so he did. The Zac Brown Band is doing what makes them happy, they wanted to make an album with a bunch of different genres so they did. Hate their music, don’t hate them. They are the least of the problems with mainstream country.
May 30, 2015 @ 12:32 pm
I personally believe that “Beautiful Drug” was an unfortunate moment, but I don’t think that should exclude anyone from appreciating what Zac did with “Dress Blues” and other songs. I’ve found SCM’s readership over the years to be quite diverse and open-minded, despite what a few commenters may represent’ evidenced by the popularity of your comment.
May 30, 2015 @ 1:07 pm
I agree, it’s just hard for me to overlook the few commenters that you mentioned, but I agree. Zac Brown Band has been my favorite act in music for years, they turned me on to Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, which then lead me to this website. This website has lead me to discover a lot more great artists, including Chris Stapleton who is now one of my favorites as well. Those few commenters can hate his music, but they shouldn’t ignore the fact that Zac Brown knows good artists and wants his fan base to hear them, I’m one of those fans who is now a fan of artists that this website loves and I read this website regularly now, all because of ZBB.
May 30, 2015 @ 12:37 pm
But why did he “want to make a club song”? To get paid. That’s the very definition of a “sellout.” I’m just saying..
May 30, 2015 @ 1:00 pm
that is why you think he wanted to, but I really think he just wanted to, that is what it seems like to me after watching the interview of him talking about every song on the album
May 30, 2015 @ 1:09 pm
I can understand where you’re coming from, but where – in any album or song he’s ever made in his career – has he given any hint, whatsoever, that he had even the slightest inclination to make a song like that? In fact, I believe he’s called less-bad songs than that the worst songs he’s ever heard. That is why I think what I think.
May 30, 2015 @ 1:19 pm
yeah I hear you, but the difference between “Beautiful Drug” and “My Kinda Night” (the “worst song he’s ever heard”) is My Kinda Night was on country radio and supposed to be a country song, while Beautiful Drug is meant to be what Zac called a “club song”. He actually talked about Beautiful Drug like 6 months before the album came out and said it was going to be an “interesting crossover tune for us.” If he released it as a country single then I would agree with you but I really just think he wanted to make a song like that, just like he wanted to make all of those other songs on the album in different genres. just my opinion.
May 30, 2015 @ 1:13 pm
Then again, my wife is currently singing along to “girl crush” in the car. Needless to say, I’ve got bigger shit to worry about right now…
May 30, 2015 @ 2:04 pm
Oh god you need to put a stop to that lol
May 30, 2015 @ 4:08 pm
Uh oh, a song that can be vaguely interpreted as homosexual. Watch out for that equality stuff…
Being on topic, really Beautiful Drug is nothing more than experimentation. If they released as a single, then I’d agree that they’re really milking the song and alienating the fan base that was established with singles like Colder Weather or Highway 20 Ride. But in the end, it’s a horrible song, but it’s clearly experimentation. It really should’ve stayed on an EP or Pass The Jar where it would’ve made less impact.
May 30, 2015 @ 7:11 pm
Jason, I don’t give 2 shits about the queer stuff. Live your life how ya want, I don’t care. My point was that it’s objectively a terrible song.
And as far as the worst song ZBB has ever made, I’m willing to accept your argument that they at least didn’t release it as a single. Yet. I’ll consider it experimentation and a complete bitch-slap to their fans, but won’t consider them a “sellout” until they release it as a single.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 31, 2015 @ 9:57 am
Yeah, I really do not like Jekyll + Hyde, but I also firmly believe that it’s not a case of them selling out.
It’s Brown saying “fuck it, let’s see what this genre sounds like when we do it!” For a bunch of different genres, and then throwing it all together and releasing it as a record.
Unfortunately, ZBB’s iteration of most of the genres in question don’t sound particularly good, creating a record that’s very much *ahem* a Jekyll and Hyde affair.
June 3, 2015 @ 8:27 am
Zac is showing yall that he can sing anything and everything..He is bad ass himself..LOVE his music, and damn, his band is amazing….
May 30, 2015 @ 12:40 pm
I’m a big fan of ZBB. They are very creative and they are not bro-country, so sign me up!
I’m also a fan of Jason Isbell and have seen him twice in concert, so far.
May 30, 2015 @ 12:57 pm
I agree, I’m a fan of Isbell as well.
May 30, 2015 @ 11:49 am
If Jason keeps going the way he is, he will be known as one of the greatest American song writers of all time! He’s a tremendous talent!
May 30, 2015 @ 2:13 pm
I’m astonished by the lack of gratitude reflected in some of these early comments.
Lest we forget, the Zac Brown Band didn’t just drop into the mainstream from golden parachutes. They have most humble origins much like Jason Isbell has, and you bet your bottom dollar I wholeheartedly respect that they emerged into mainstream consciousness through persistence and hard work over the course of seven years (even longer if you count Zac Brown on his own) through regional circuit tours across the state of Georgia and surrounding areas.
I may be weary of the overall direction they may be headed (I say “may” because “JEKYLL + HYDE” strikes me as more of a deliberate, one-time wildly experimental outlier and what follows is more than likely to be more cohesive and consistent) musically and artistically, and I sure as hell felt my heart sank listening to “Beautiful Drug”. I’m also concerned that Zac Brown the Tycoon may be eclipsing Zac Brown the Singer/Songwriter and I am dearly hoping this isn’t indicative of a longer-term trend where egoism eclipses the humility he has long expressed. But I won’t forget they got where they are now organically, and this is one of their means of paying it forward to other songwriters they respect.
A couple other points.
Firstly, another subtle but striking variation between the two versions of “Dress Blues” that wasn’t covered in the interview is the Zac Brown Band deciding to change the lyric “Hollywood war” to “God awful war”.
Honestly, I actually prefer the Zac Brown Band variation more, and here’s why. While I totally get why Isbell ran with “Hollywood war” in the specific context of his original, “God awful war” evokes a lot more of a populist punch replete with righteous anger as opposed to “Hollywood” eliciting a more limited response. And while it may not have been deliberate and being taken too literally, I also like how it leaves open the interpretation that blind theology (regardless of the religion, and not to be confused with faith in general) is responsible for the vast majority of warfare across human history.
But that leads into my second point. I prefer the version of “Dress Blues” WITHOUT the inclusion of “Taps”. I absolutely believe Zac Brown’s heart was in the right place upon his intention to include it, and I don’t doubt his sincerity at all. Still, it comes across as a bit too forced all the same and I can see why some listeners would perceive it as blatant capitalizing on patriotic sentiment; that it’s more marketing than having something to say. And, in direct result of the inclusion of “Taps”, I feel like the “God awful war” line loses some of its potency. That it is overshadowed somehow.
Because while this is as much a heartbreaking and affecting song that’s absolutely personal and worthy of inclusion on any Memorial Day montage, on paper it’s still a strident anti-war anthem. And with the inclusion of “Taps”, I feel the lyrical potency winds up taking a back seat. Again, that may just be me, though.
At any rate, I’m grateful that Jason Isbell is gaining a lot more visibility as a brilliant songwriter, and I am grateful the Zac Brown Band acknowledge Isbell’s gifts to the world and are doing their part to make as many as tens of thousands more take notice.
May 30, 2015 @ 2:31 pm
My comment had nothing to do with anything else that’s been mentioned here. I’ve never heard that drug song, and I’m not calling Zac a sellout. I’m saying he can’t sellout, because he’s never bought in…that, and he couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag. His voice is grating to listen to. His band really should find a new singer to front them.
May 30, 2015 @ 11:38 pm
Uhhhhhh….. Uhhhhh.. What….
He has really awesome vocals. Listen to The Grohl Sessions which were tracked live and tell me the dude can’t sing.
He has a few bad moments on his last album with song choices, but regardless he can sing.
May 31, 2015 @ 1:07 am
Really? you can not like his music all you want. Thats fine by me. But that man has an amazing vocal range. Thats like saying that Adele cant sing just because you don’t like the songs she sings.
May 31, 2015 @ 9:43 am
I respect your opinion but my god that is a stupid comment
June 1, 2015 @ 5:42 am
Welcome to world according to Clint.
June 4, 2015 @ 10:55 pm
Clint is right people.
May 30, 2015 @ 8:16 pm
I’ve been holding out but I’m jusy gonna say it: Jason isbell…..snoozacana. Boring!
May 31, 2015 @ 12:16 am
Finally someone hot the nail on the head!!
May 31, 2015 @ 1:09 am
Atleast if you’re going to say it give us a reason why you think its boring. Or are you just going to be a blind critic? Saw him recently live and it is without a doubt the best live show i have been to. Great range of music, and was much better at the guitar solos than i expected him to be.
May 31, 2015 @ 6:57 am
I don’t hear the “snooze” aspect of Isbell’s music. He’s a brilliant guitarist and soulful singer, and, of course, one of the 21st Century’s best songwriters. What is wrong with having depth as an artist?
I saw Isbell last year and it was thrilling. Holly Williams opened and was terrific as well. It was the best double-bill I’ve seen in a long, long time. American music is alive and well. You just have to move your ears away from the mainstream to realize it.
May 31, 2015 @ 5:49 am
Beautiful song, wonderfully sung.
May 31, 2015 @ 9:55 am
Honestly ZBB did a great job with this song, but I think adding Taps into the middle broke the flow. It would’ve been better suited if they placed it somewhere different and they did away with the steel guitar in that bit. It really has too much presence and doesn’t fit well with the rest of the instrumentation.
Cool Lester Smooth
May 31, 2015 @ 10:05 am
I gotta say, despite my affection for ZBB, I actually don’t love this cover. It just feels a little overproduced and processed. Especially with the backup singer.
My favorite version of the song (and of Razor Town) is still the one off Live from Alabama. That is a great live album.
June 1, 2015 @ 1:12 pm
Overproduced and processed is a pretty good criticism for the whole Jekyll + Hyde album. ZBB had the same issue with their cover of The Muse on The Grohl Sessions.
Cool Lester Smooth
June 1, 2015 @ 4:59 pm
Yup. They work much better when stripped down. Part of what I love is their warm sound…something that this album just doesn’t have.
Jason in NJ
June 5, 2015 @ 7:28 am
Live in Alabama is probably the best album live or not of all damn time. Brown’s dress blues does not hold a candle
May 31, 2015 @ 10:09 am
I think including taps in the performance is a fine idea.
There is no doubt, in North America, that is the saddest tune there is. Filled with the memory of every miserable death from war.
First time I came across Jason Isbell, was at this site. And I am very glad I was introduced to him and his deeply soulful music. I think he’s the perfect songwriter/performer for these times.
so”¦ thanks to Zack for doing this.
June 1, 2015 @ 3:22 am
I was really sad to see ZBB’s change to the lyrics.
Originally Isbell sang:
“there’s red, white, and blue in the rafters
And there’s silent old men from the corps
What did they say when they shipped you away
to fight somebody’s Hollywood war?”
ZBB changed that to
“… What did they say when they shipped you away
To give all in some God awful war?”
What I love about Isbell’s version is the love and solidarity with the soldier who died, combined with a note of political criticism of the forces that sent him there. That’s what makes it such a wonderful song – it loves soldiers without being militaristic; a rare combination. Zac Brown’s version is far safer, far more tame, far less challenging – closer to a cookie-cutter patriotism that mourns deaths without challenging the structures that cause them.
June 1, 2015 @ 1:07 pm
Maybe Zac Brown is not as anti-war as Jason Isbell.
In general, injecting too much politics into music is a bad idea. Music is supposed to be a shared experience.
Cool Lester Smooth
June 1, 2015 @ 5:02 pm
Eh. Songwriting should be personal. Politics are personal. I don’t have to agree with a guy’s point of view to enjoy his art, and it’s silly that people have political litmus tests for the artists they enjoy.
June 2, 2015 @ 3:56 am
The ZBB version is just as political as Isbell’s. It just expresses a different political stance – further towards uncritical patriotism. A song about war death is *always* going to be political.
June 1, 2015 @ 6:09 am
ZBB gets a lot of hate for the rock song on his last album. I like the music Zack is making. Not all of it is country, but I can dig it.
June 1, 2015 @ 8:26 am
Zac came from humble beginnings – I remember seeing him and his bandmates at the Musicfest in Steamboat, playing in the HALLWAY of the Steamboat Grand Hotel. Yes, late-night in the hallway. He’s come a long way, and I’m happy for him. And who among us doesn’t want to make money? How else are they going to buy that tour bus and be able to afford to stay in a decent hotel and eat something besides McDonald’s? In this day, when people are no longer buying records, because as Zane Williams says, “anybody can get it for free”? Let these folks make their bad songs for the hoi polloi to generate some cash, as long as they keep making good songs too! We don’t have to listen to the bad ones!
jason from nj
June 2, 2015 @ 12:57 pm
” Let these folks make their bad songs for the hoi polloi to generate some cash, as long as they keep making good songs too! We don”™t have to listen to the bad ones!”
While I respect your opinion. All of J & H is a step far, far below anything else Brown has ever released. None of the songs on this record are as good as the worst songs off of Uncaged and You Get What You Give. Its a bad record – through and through.
June 4, 2015 @ 8:25 am
I haven’t even listened to it, but I take your word that it’s bad. I’m certainly not going to buy it. However, if the “hoi polloi” buy it, and generate a bunch of cash for Zac, he’ll have the financial freedom and flexibility to make some music for those of us that are cool 😉 instead of trying to grind out that next pop-crossover hit. It’s hard not to be a sell-out when you see Taylor Swift traveling in her Lear and you’re trying to figure out how you’re making the next payment on your tour bus. (Actually, I don’t know that Taylor Swift travels in a Lear, but I think you get what I’m sayin’.)
June 2, 2015 @ 3:04 pm
I don’t mind zack brown I think colder weather is a great country song, that being said if beautiful weather is worse than chicken fry I would be amazed.