To make Reunions, one of his most eclectic albums to date, the 41-year-old Americana hero had to take the pressure off himself.

By Hilary Hughes and Hilary Hughes
May 11, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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ALYSSE GAFKJEN

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ 4-year-old daughter, Mercy, has a simple benchmark for the music her mom and dad make: If she can dance to it, she’s a fan.

“She likes ‘What’ve I Done to Help,’ ” Isbell says of her favorite track on Reunions, his new album. “Her goal is to lengthen the period of time before she has to go do something else, like clean up her toys or eat lunch: ‘Can I listen to this song, Daddy, before I take a nap?’ ” He chuckles. “It’s hard to turn that down.”

Mercy wasn’t the only fan of the single’s galloping beat and catchy chorus. Last December, Isbell and his band the 400 Unit — which includes Shires (fiddle and backing vocals), Derry deBorja (keys), Chad Gamble (percussion), Jimbo Hart (bass), and Sadler Vaden (guitar) — were recording Reunions with longtime producer Dave Cobb in Nashville when David Crosby flew in to join them. Isbell had met the C in CSNY at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, and they grew friendly after performing “Wooden Ships” and “Ohio” together. That eventually led to Croz singing backup alongside Isbell and Shires on “What’ve I Done to Help” and the somber “Only Children,” the first song Isbell wrote for the album.

“I learned how to sing harmony listening to David, and that was a big part of my musical education growing up,” recalls the Alabama native. “His voice is still so powerful and strong. I asked him how that’s possible. He said, ‘I’ve tried everything I could to kill it, and it won’t die, so I figure I have to keep using it for the powers of good for as long as I can.’”

It’s one of many full-circle moments on Reunions, which Isbell wrote after absolving himself of the need to deliver another hit. Each of his past three albums, Southeastern (2013), Something More Than Free (2015), and The Nashville Sound (2017), represented a transformative shift for the Americana singer-songwriter. He wrote Southeastern after getting sober and marrying Shires, and its songs — especially tear-jerking love letter "Cover Me Up" — shine with newfound strength in vulnerability. Something More Than Free marked his first time on the Billboard Country Albums chart, where it reached No. 1. It also yielded his first two Grammys: Best Americana Album and Best American Roots song, for the single "24 Frames."

Mercy arrived weeks after that album. The 2016 presidential election followed her first birthday, as did The Nashville Sound in 2017 — which moved the equivalent of 54,000 album units in its first week, his strongest debut yet. Galvanized by current events and the toxic power dynamics controlling them, Isbell penned “White Man’s World” to check white male privilege and call out the inequality marginalized people face. He and Shires sing the haunting final refrain of the song together: “I still have faith but I don’t know why/Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”

Vaden, who’s played guitar in the 400 Unit since 2013, says Isbell is now at the top of his game. "I joined the band right before Southeastern, and I knew he’d gone through a lot of changes,” says Vaden, who just released his own album, Anybody Out There? “He had this new confidence as a writer, and then once we got on the road, he gained more confidence as a performer. That continued into the writing of Something More Than Free, and then into The Nashville Sound. By then, I saw a big change in his confidence as a person.”

Sadler Vaden (left) has played in Isbell’s band since 2013
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

With Reunions, Isbell continues to blur the lines between fact and folklore by mixing allegory and experiences with his loved ones, as he does in “Overseas,” which alludes to his and Shires’ time apart when one of them leaves home for tour. On “Letting You Go,” Isbell writes directly to Mercy as he watches her grow older, while “It Gets Easier” is a clever, candid update on his sobriety (the chorus: “It gets easier but it never gets easy”). As Isbell and his family have grown, so has his willingness to share the stories most private to him — even when he removes the metaphor altogether.

“I think that I made less of an effort to be universal with these stories,” he says. “I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that, if you’re honest and you spend enough time with each song, and write it the best you possibly can, you don’t have to worry about trying to apply that to other peoples’ experiences. That’s sort of the antithesis of pop, because pop is intentionally transmutable in a way that folk music isn’t. But that’s of interest to me because this record...sounds more like a pop album to me than anything I’ve done in the past.”

Vaden notes that Reunions is the most disparate record Isbell has made, capturing the power of their live show for the first time — a sound far more rock than folk. “Be Afraid” is an intense rebuke of the “Shut up and sing!” criticisms lobbed at Isbell by conservative fans affronted by his progressive politics, and its fury is a potent anthem when the band blasts through it together.

“I was pleased with the attack of that song,” Vaden says of “Be Afraid.” “You can get into Foo Fighters territory really easily with a song like that — that’s not a bad thing, but that’s not the type of band we are. I think we did a good job of getting the message across, and then having the music match the message.”

Isbell has doubled down on that, too — even if he’s taking it easy on Twitter, where his quick wit and passion for social justice have made him a must-follow. “I’m trying to stay aware of everybody’s level of frustration, sadness, and anger, and that makes me behave a little differently on social media than I would have in the past,” he says. “Even if I think something is funny or witty, I might keep it to myself now, whereas [before] I would just let it go."

Still, “Be Afraid” sums up Reunions, and Isbell’s growth within it, in a single line: “You tell the truth enough, you find it rhymes with everything.” In a way, Isbell took a page from Crosby— he’s using his stronger-than-ever voice for the powers of good.

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