Live On The Bridge

S1 E17 | FULL EPISODE

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

His most recent release The Nashville Sound has us wanting more with deep reflections on life and death a long with dynamic melodies. It's the second time he's been in our studio and Jason Isbell and his band just keep sounding better and better.

AIRED: July 29, 2017 | 0:26:39
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TRANSCRIPT

(amplifier feedback reverberating)

(upbeat funky music)

- Welcome into the studios.

It's Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

live today on The Bridge, and it seems, Jason,

like this is kind of an unruly group.

- They're tough, tough people to be around.

- Well, they are named after a Florence, Alabama

hospital psych ward, so that's a lot to live up too.

- I judged the talent show there once

at that facility, (Jon laughs)

and it's amazing that some of 'em were very, very good.

Some of 'em were just playing air guitar,

but some of 'em were very good, talented people.

And they changed the name.

I don't know, Chad's wife works in the same hospital.

Did they change the name because of us?

- [Chad] I think so.

- I think it was their fault. (Jon laughs)

So I think our insensitivity forced

the hospital group to get creative.

- [Chad] It was the 400 unit t-shirts.

- Yeah somebody wore one of our t-shirts

into work one day, I think,

(Jon laughs)

and everything changed.

- Congratulations on the new record, The Nashville Sound.

- Thank you. - It's out June 16th,

and man, is it a great piece of work.

- Thank you very much.

I would like to say we worked really,

really hard on it, but we didn't.

(Jon laughs)

We went in, there was hard work done,

but it didn't really feel like it,

'cause we all like each other's company,

and I'm very lucky because this band,

I go in and play a song for the band

and for Dave Cobb, the producer,

and then we all sit down and start playing the song,

and within a few hours, we have a recording

of the song that goes on the album.

And that's a luxury, because most people

aren't as good at listening and learning

that quickly as these guys and girl are.

So it was,

it made the process much easier and much quicker.

And as much as I like to be in the studio,

I don't like the tedium that starts

to take over after a couple of weeks.

I don't wanna spend months working on something.

I don't wanna record a bunch of songs we're not gonna use.

A couple of those max, but I don't wanna

spend most of my life in the studio,

because it makes me very anxious after a while,

and I start reconsidering the quality

of all the works that we're doing,

and we want something that does sound

human at the end of the day.

And I think the best way to do that is to catch everybody

when they're caffeinated but not quite awake emotionally.

- (laughs) You mentioned Dave Cobb

and he's been getting so much great press

for the work that he's been doing,

and he just sort of recently signed on to run the studio

that you recorded it in, the old RCA Studio A.

And it's a legendary space.

Almost lost to a condo.

- Almost, yeah.

- But that's the studio that, correct me if I'm wrong,

but Dolly Parton did I Will Always Love You.

- That's the one, yeah.

- And Chet Atkins was behind it, and I guess his desk

is still there. - He was in charge

for a long time, yeah.

- Did you feel that when you were recording?

- Well, there were certain times when you thought,

I'd better bring my A game, because of

the room that I'm in, and because

you work for a long time, you start off as a kid,

recording in your friends' basements,

and then, if you get to a certain point,

and you're in a big, beautiful studio

that Chet Atkins operated, and Johnny Cash worked in,

and Dolly Parton worked in, and really,

that's where the outlaw country thing was born.

I mean, they were called outlaws

because they wanted to record there,

rather than at the studio that their record label

owned in Los Angeles, so the record label

sort of made fun of Waylon and Willie and said,

"Oh, you're outlaws now, are you?

"You're gonna do it your own way?"

And that sorta stuck and everybody

took it way too seriously.

But when you get in there, you definitely,

I mean, there were some moments where we even said,

you're in the RCA studio now,

you'd better not screw this up.

- (laughs) Dave's a little bit different.

He likes to stay down in the room with you.

- He likes to get in the studio

and pretend he's in the band.

(Jon laughs)

We let him play the shaker.

- You know, the thing that makes this

a really good interview is the fact that

he's not here to defend himself.

If you wanna keep going.

- He's not.

Let me tell you something about Dave Cobb.

(Jon laughs)

That's not even his real name.

His real name is Madonna.

(Jon laughs)

No, he doesn't like to feel like

he's judging what the band is doing.

He likes to feel like he's participating.

And so, he's very aware, he's very present,

his instincts are great, and he likes

to put himself on the same level

as the people who are recording, you know?

And I think that's kind of ahead of its time.

I think there will be a day, and in a lot of musical styles,

that's kind of how it is, producer-driven music,

like a lot of the pop that you have nowadays,

and R&B and hip-hop and those things,

are produced by people who are also recording artists.

And they all just collaborate.

Everybody works together.

And I like that Dave is bringing that to country

and rock and roll and all the little things in between.

It makes me more comfortable, and I think it does the band.

- I would love to hear some music, if we could.

- Let's do a song.

I've got the whole band here, every one of 'em.

(electric guitar music)

And if you don't mind, I would like

to tell you who these people are.

Derry deBorja is on the keys,

and he's from Baltimore, Maryland.

And then, my wife, Amanda Shires,

she plays the violin and she sings,

and she's from Lubbock, Texas.

Chad Gamble, who plays the drums,

is from Tuscumbia, Alabama, the birthplace of Helen Keller.

Jimbo Hart, on the bass guitar,

is from Sheffield, Alabama, the birthplace of Jimbo Hart.

And Sadler Vaden plays the electric guitar.

He's from North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,

the conception place of half the world's population.

(band members laugh)

- [Jason] Shall we?

("Hope the High Road")

♪ Well, I used to think that this was my town

♪ What a stupid thing to think

♪ I hear you're fighting off a breakdown

♪ I myself am on the brink

♪ I used to wanna be a real man

♪ I don't know what that even means

♪ Now I just want you in my arms again

♪ And we can search each other's dreams

♪ I know you're tired

♪ And you ain't sleeping well

♪ Uninspired

♪ And likely mad as hell

♪ But wherever you are

♪ I hope the high road leads you home again

♪ I've heard enough of the white man's blues

♪ I've sang enough about myself

♪ So if you're looking for some bad news

♪ Well, you can find it somewhere else

♪ Last year was a son of a bitch

♪ For nearly everyone we know

♪ But I ain't fighting with you down in the ditch

♪ I'll meet you up here on the road

♪ I know you're tired

♪ And you ain't sleeping well

♪ Uninspired

♪ And likely mad as hell

♪ But wherever you are

♪ I hope the high road leads you home again

♪ To a world you wanna live in

♪ We'll ride the ship down

♪ Dumping buckets overboard

♪ There can't be more of them than us

♪ There can't be more

(electric guitar music)

♪ I know you're tired

♪ And you ain't sleeping well

♪ Uninspired

♪ And likely mad as hell

♪ But wherever you are

♪ I hope the high road leads you home again

♪ To a world you wanna live in

♪ To a world you wanna live in

- That has got to be the rockingest song

to ever talk about the tone of political discourse

that I've ever heard. - It may be, I don't know,

though, 'cause if you think about it,

The Clash had a long career out of talking

(Jon laughs) about things like that.

But they didn't necessarily steer you

in the same direction, I don't think.

- [Jon] Yeah.

- They were more like, burn, burn, burn, burn, burn.

- (laughs) Yeah.

Well, you know John Lennon's Revolution was kind of about.

- Yeah, it was, it was.

Definitely, it covered, I think, the same territory.

Yeah, I think, I'm trying to find

that point of diminishing returns,

and I think that's really important

when you're attempting to move people

in one direction or another, or move 'em at all.

Just, if you're trying to make something

that speaks to people rather than

something that preoccupies 'em

or entertains 'em, I think you have to find

that fine line between a whisper and a shout.

- The album, at least, to a certain extent,

is informed by the times we live in.

And you've talked, there's even a song on the album

called White Man's World, and I know

that you've sort of been questioning what your role is.

- Yeah, I think that's my job, is to question my role.

I think, to constantly question my role is my job,

as a white person, as a man, as a father,

as a husband, as an artist.

I think that's pretty much the best I can hope for,

is if I'm always wondering, am I finding the right spot?

Am I doing the right work?

Am I putting my energy in the right direction?

And I think that song deals with

how to come to terms with things

you have no control over, because,

obviously, I was born a white man.

So it's the

being empathetic and sympathizing more exactly,

sympathizing with women and with

other ethnicities, other social groups,

other cultural groups, without feeling ashamed

of something that I can't control,

is a fine line, it's a difficult thing, you know.

Because I learned when I quit drinking,

when I was going through a lot of different processes

to get recovered, that you can't allow yourself

to feel shame over things that you can't control,

because that's just a rabbit hole.

That's a downward spiral, you know.

So I try to find, okay, how do I help,

how do I help make us all more equal, if at all possible?

And that's what I'm trying to do with that song,

and really, with a lot of the work that I do.

- You know, that's all heavy.

The other, it's, I mean, (mimics heaviness).

The other part of the album is

the inspiration you took from your daughter.

And-- - Which, to me,

is even heavier, you know?

- [Jon] Yeah, yeah.

- It's like, society and all that, yeah, but my daughter,

oh my god, everything's made out of a knife now.

(Jon and audience laugh)

Yeah, when she came along, the world

got terrifying in an instant.

And, yeah, you want to, you wanna be able

to see things from that different perspective.

I think that's really a gift that she's given me,

and Amanda, also, as artists, is you learn

that she has to start learning from scratch.

She has to figure out that the ground

is not part of her feet, before

she can figure out how to walk on it.

And seeing things from that perspective, I think,

is great for anybody who does any kind of creative writing,

because you're always looking for a new way

to say things that have been said

thousands and thousands of times before.

So sometimes, if you're looking at it from a foot

off the ground, it's a little bit easier to do that.

- Well, I gotta tell you, the record is spectacular.

It's The Nashville Sound, it comes out June 16th,

and we'd love to have another song, if we could.

- [Jason] Yeah, let's play another song.

("Cumberland Gap")

♪ There's an answer here, if I look hard enough

♪ There's a reason why I always

♪ Reach for the harder stuff

♪ It wasn't my daddy's way

♪ He was down in the mines all day

♪ I know he wanted more than mouths to feed

♪ And bills to pay

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ I ain't cut out for war

♪ Unless I know what I'm fighting for

♪ And there's nothing here but

♪ Churches, bars, and grocery stores

♪ And there ain't much money in

♪ The old-time mandolin

♪ So I cash my check and I drink

♪ 'Til I'm on my ass again

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Remember when we could see the mountain's peak?

♪ The sparkle off the amphibole?

♪ Like a giant golden eagle's beak

♪ Now they say no one wants the coal

♪ I thought about moving away

♪ But what would my mama say?

♪ Well, I'm all that she has left

♪ And I'm with her every day

♪ So as soon as the sun goes down

♪ I find my way to the Mustang Lounge

♪ And if you don't sit facing the window

♪ You could be in any town

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

♪ Maybe the Cumberland Gap

♪ Just swallows you whole

- It's just so great of you to come in

and play these songs so far in advance

of the record coming out. - I'll tell you what's great,

is for you guys to play our music on the radio.

Nobody does that, it's amazing.

(Jon laughs)

- Yeah, well, you know, I think that's

not exactly accurate, but we'll take the compliment.

- Compared to how many people there are in the world,

there's very few people playing our music on the radio.

That's for sure.

Because they can't find a format, you know?

The good stations that can play all kinds of stuff,

they play it, but what, is it rock and roll,

is it country, what is it, what is this,

what even is this we're doing?

Nobody knows.

- Yeah, we've kinda figured out over time

that it's really hard to describe the music,

so the easiest way to approach it

is to describe the listeners,

and it's just people who want a little bit more.

- That's awesome, I like that.

- [Jon] Yeah.

- That's what I'm gonna tell people

sitting next to me on airplanes from now on.

We make music for people who want a little bit more.

(Jon laughs)

You guys have any of the chicken left?

(audience laughs)

Probably not.

- You know, the thing about Cumberland Gap

is it's a pretty good example of

one of your songs where it's about

a character that isn't you, but it's your truth.

- Yeah, I'm always gonna find myself in there, you know?

I'm always gonna wander into my own songs.

I can't really keep that from happening.

I think that's probably how I keep things honest.

And sometimes I'll use these sort of

character-driven stories to work my way through something,

figure out how I feel about something

that's going on in my own life.

And sometimes, I use 'em to come to terms

with the person that I used to be,

or one of the people that I used to be.

And, you know, I grew up in a part of the country that,

I didn't have really the representation, I think,

that a lot of America might have.

We were right there in the middle, in rural Alabama,

and a lot of people felt and still feel

like nobody really cares about 'em at all,

and it's hard to argue with that these days.

So sometimes, I try to write songs about those folks,

and through that process, I hope to understand

myself a little bit better, but I remember,

we used to play in this little town in Kentucky,

Whitesburg, Kentucky, that went wet after decades,

generations, of not selling any alcohol in the town.

And I remember, we were soundchecking,

and we walked out of this little,

it was a coffee shop, really, that they just

put in a little temporary PA, and this was a long time ago,

and we walked out on the sidewalk,

and there was a guy just covered in soot,

head to toe, just covered, and he was

holding a beer, and just staring at it.

(Jon laughs)

To me, it looked like that's the first one

he'd been able to buy when he got off of work, you know?

And I thought, man, nobody needs a beer more than this guy.

And ever since then, I've kinda had

those folks on my brain, and I think

that guy's probably who this song is about.

- You know, there's a song on the record,

The Last Of My Kind, which, it seems

like your Jon Bryant song.

- Yeah, I think that's probably how I described it to you.

I was like, I wrote a song that

is my Jon Bryant song today.

But you know, there's a lot of,

I have a lot of Jon Bryant songs (chuckles).

- [Jon] Yeah.

- It's a good thing that I'm his friend,

'cause he's not gonna sue me.

(Jon laughs)

- But-- - Well, that one

seems so lighthearted, and then it goes

and there's greater lyrical depth that takes you

by surprise, which is something that Bryant does a lot.

- He does it really well.

And that's how the day goes, you know?

That's how your life goes.

Everything's lighthearted.

You get up, you drink your coffee,

and then the stones start falling

on your head out of nowhere.

I mean, that's how it always happens.

Nobody lives in total darkness,

and nobody lives in total light.

So I think, really, to capture the human experience

as well as possible, you have to do that.

You have to say, basically, I was just going along,

minding my own business, when all of a sudden.

- Yeah.

You all, you and Amanda came and played

for us here in Kansas City not too terribly long ago,

opening up for John, and it was just,

it's my favorite show in quite some time.

I absolutely adored it from start to finish.

That night, you got introduced as Mr. Amanda Shires.

- Mr. Amanda Shires, yes.

Yes, Mr. Shires, I don't mind.

- The bandleader did that to you.

- Yeah, I've been called a lot worse

than Mr. Shires, that's for sure.

(Jon laughs)

Today.

(audience chuckles)

John got a little tangled up a couple nights ago.

We played a show with him,

and he introduced me as Amanda's better half.

And that's not true at all.

I said, I'm the lucky third.

(Jon laughs)

In this relationship.

You know, she lived here, you lived here

for a while in Kansas City.

You lived here, where did you go?

- I went to Red Bridge Elementary.

- Red Bridge. - And then

I went to Redemptorist.

- Redemptorist, that sounds like a blog (chuckles).

But she does speak fondly of this town,

and she's still got a lot of family here.

- I'd love to hear one more song, if we could.

- [Jason] All right.

("If We Were Vampires")

♪ It's not the long, flowing dress that you're in

♪ Or the light coming off of your skin

♪ The fragile heart you've protected for so long

♪ Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong

♪ It's not your hands searching slow in the dark

♪ Or your nails leaving love's watermark

♪ It's not the way you talk me off the roof

♪ Your questions like directions to the truth

♪ It's knowing that this can't go on forever

♪ Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

♪ Maybe we'll get 40 years together

♪ But one day I'll be gone

♪ And one day you'll be gone

♪ And if we were vampires and death was a joke

♪ We'd go out on the sidewalk and smoke

♪ And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

♪ I wouldn't feel the need to hold your hand

♪ Maybe time running out is a gift

♪ I'll work hard 'til the end of my shift

♪ To give you every second I can find

♪ And hope it isn't me who's left behind

♪ Knowing that this can't go on forever

♪ Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

♪ And maybe we'll get 40 years together

♪ But one day I'll be gone

♪ And one day you'll be gone

(somber violin music)

♪ And knowing that this can't go on forever

♪ Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

♪ Maybe we'll get 40 years together

♪ But one day I'll be gone

♪ Or one day you'll be gone

- You know, one of the things about radio

is they always tell you to not have any dead air.

And that song deserves a little dead air.

- Well, thank you.

That's, yeah, that's a hard one to get through sometimes.

Sometimes I have to think about baseball, or.

(Jon laughs)

Well, you know, we, I passed the headphones upstairs

to somebody today who couldn't make it through the song.

- That was hard, the first few times I sang it,

I couldn't do it, it was hard.

- [Amanda] And you really feel weird

when you're crying at your own song.

(Jon laughs) - It is weird.

There's something just terribly,

terribly egotistical about crying

at something you just made up.

(Jon laughs)

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

I can't survive it.

Yeah, it's, that's really weird.

That's like laughing at your own joke times 10, isn't it?

- Just the line of, maybe time running out is a gift.

The fact that it just sort of adds meaning.

It's like, you just can't take things for granted.

- Yeah, and if we were here forever,

we wouldn't have any motivation

to take anything away from it,

to get anything out of it, you know?

I think maybe, maybe the best thing of all is death,

because that's the only reason

any of us get up in the morning.

It's the only reason any of us fall in love.

It's the only reason any of us care about anything,

is because one day, we're gonna be dead.

- And, you know, I think that accepting that

is one of the things that sort of

removes fear of death, in a way.

It's part of that cycle.

- Yeah, some cultures figured that out

a long time ago, and spread it around, and got used to it.

And it still, I'm still terrified of death.

I'm terrified of other people's death, especially,

but I'm also terrified of my own,

but it does, it helps a little bit to think of

what a great purpose it serves, you know,

to sort of hold us to the fire.

- I just, you know, I'm done, I'm out.

I just don't wanna say goodbye.

(band members chuckle)

Thank you for coming in here and sharing your music.

The new album is really a gift.

- It's always a joy to come in here

and talk to you and play,

so thank you very much for having us.

- [Jon] Well, Thank you.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, on The Bridge.

- Thanks for watching.

You can find the full session

on our YouTube page, 90.9 The Bridge.

- [Presenter] Music programming for The Bridge

is brought to you in part through

the generosity of these members.

We would like to thank them for their support.

- Thank you.

- Thank you. - Thank you very much.

- [Presenter] If you would like to learn

more about how you can become a member,

call (816) 756-2580,

or go to bridge909.org/donate.

(audience applauds) - Thank you guys.

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