In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. This conversation is one of five with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.
On the first night of Jason Isbell's December residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, he chose to share the stage of CMA Theater with only one other performer: his wife, Amanda Shires, a member of his band The 400 Unit and a singer-songwriter in her own right. He was clad in loafers and a blazer, she in sneakers and a leather jacket. Midway through the show, she offered an impish explanation for why she was dressed-down in pants: She'd tired of wearing pantyhose earlier in the day, thanks to a family photo shoot with their young daughter.
The two were operating without the safety net of a set list. He'd pluck gems from his celebrated songwriting catalog, and she'd guess from the initial chords where he was headed, embellishing his storytelling with her wild-eyed, lyrical fiddle solos and fluttery harmonies. They played songs they'd co-written for each of their most recent albums, then he asked her to do another from her repertoire. Between selections, they bantered like highbrow vaudevillians about language use, literary influences and the editorial roles they sometimes play in each other's songwriting process. Though it was Isbell's name attached to the series, an honor shared by the likes of Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark before him, the interaction between him and Shires felt like that of artistic and intellectual equals.
In life and music, the couple has a partnership that's closely observed and widely admired. (It's even inspired Halloween costumes). Separately, each of them piled up professional accomplishments in 2017, she headlining her biggest solo tour yet and winning Americana Emerging Artist of the Year on the heels of her 2016 album My Piece of Land, and he besting his previous sales records with The Nashville Sound and raking in award nominations, including his first for CMA Album of the Year, a category otherwise populated by major label, mainstream releases.
But beyond those achievements, Isbell and Shires also helped set a tone this year for how art, commerce and politics intersected in and beyond Nashville, working against the backdrop of Americana music's reckoning with representation and diversity and country music's careful treatment of potentially polarizing issues. Isbell recorded a song in which he, as I wrote on its release, "implicated himself, and those like him, in a pattern of unexamined privilege, owning his former blindness to how he benefited from and helped perpetuate racism and sexism." Shires walked the CMA Awards red carpet in a shirt bearing a line from that song that referenced male domination of the industry — "Mama wants to change that Nashville Sound" — and tweeted and talked on other occasions about country music's marginalization of female voices. She also spearheaded a benefit in Nashville to raise funds for voting registration efforts, while Isbell played a free show in his native Alabama in support of Doug Jones' senate campaign. This fall, when Shires posted a series of videos in which Isbell read solemnly to her from grocery store gossip rags, the joke — that Victoria Beckham's dental work and Cindy Crawford's familial quarrels are hardly the matters their fans imagine them discussing behind the scenes — was obvious.
"We wake up like most married couples, I think: reading the news, talking about things together and trying to sort out our little world," Shires told me when I reached them on the phone. ("Yeah, we had to stop talking about politics to do this interview," Isbell seconded.) Speaking from their front porch in a pastoral Nashville suburb, they shared their reflections on, and wisecracks about, what's had their attention in 2017.
Jewly Hight: Why did it matter to you to take part in timely conversations this year?
Jason Isbell: For me, it's because a lot of things seem to be going to s*** right now. I don't speak for Amanda, but I think both of us feel like if we're not talking about the things that we believe, then we're not really using our voices to their full potential, and we're not really making art. If we're riding down the middle of the road pretending these things don't exist, then I think we're pretending to entertain people and distract them rather than attempting to make things a little bit better.
Hight: And your take, Amanda?
Amanda Shires: It really is what he said about it all intersecting all at once. We are people that speak our minds and say what's up when we have a problem with something. It seems like we had to do that a lot more this year.
Isbell: Also, there's momentum. The situation for women in the workplace, certainly it's not solved, but I think a lot more people feel free and comfortable with speaking out on sexual assault. When you see that happen, you start thinking, "OK, we've got some momentum here. We could possibly jump on this snowball and start supporting folks in the work that we do, and maybe everybody together will be able to move the needle a little bit."
Hight: Amanda, you shared a a video of yourself calling a country radio station in Knoxville to ask why they played so few women, and you've talked and tweeted about the uneven playing field on other occasions. Your influence was very evident when I spoke to Jason earlier this year about his song "White Man's World." What's it been like watching him speak up about gender inequality this year?
Shires: I think it's really cool to have a guy do it, because it can be a scary and challenging thing to do when you're a woman or when you're a minority. It's nice to know that there's people out there that want to help in some way, that don't want to just skirt the issue or ignore it. When you name a beast, sometimes it makes it less bestial.
Isbell: People who are being excluded from the conversation are usually the people who are being kept down. ... If the people who are being treated unfairly are the only people who are speaking out, then nobody really listens. It was really easy for me to find an audience compared to most people, 'cause I'm a straight, white man, and historically people have listened to straight, white men more than they should.
Hight: Amanda mentioned the class consciousness that's always been present in your songs. Do you think telling stories from working-class perspectives laid the foundation for you to speak to other realities?
Isbell: Definitely. I saw a lot of people around me, my family, struggling to make ends meet. I'm not in that situation now, but I've been a grown, adult person with zero dollars before. I have a good memory, so I can remember what it was like to not have the rent payment. I don't want to say I was using that perspective to teach myself to write about other people's experiences; really, I think I was trying to write good songs. But yes, as a side effect of that I probably did get better at empathizing, which definitely makes you a better songwriter and, I think, makes you a better person in general.
Hight: The two of you worked out an arrangement this year that enabled you to tour separately in support of your own music, and the responsibility of caring for your daughter on the road didn't simply fall to Amanda as the mom. Do you think about the ways you're modeling what a healthy partnership can look like?
Shires: I think it started out as a safety concern, because I still travel in a van. [Isbell travels in a tour bus.] But Jason's always been a dad that wants to do everything — except breastfeeding, obviously ...
Isbell: Well, I want to do that.
Shires: He goes right in there, gives her a bath and then feeds her, and he did that because that was what needed to be done.
Isbell: The example part, that's not the top priority. I think if you care about your family and they're truly at the very top of your priority list, then you do whatever needs to be done, no matter what traditional roles might be. It's worked out really well for us: We've got a really happy, healthy baby and we're happy, healthy people ourselves. I don't think there's a better way of — maybe incidentally — setting an example than that.
Hight: It's sent the message that it's important for each of you to have a standalone career, even if the scales of your touring operations are different.
Isbell: As a team, our family is a collaborative effort, and we really want to get the best out of everybody. I don't want to do something that's gonna prevent Amanda from doing what she's best at, because as long as we use our strengths, the team is gonna get stronger and the family's gonna get stronger. If I were to say, "I would rather you stay home and watch the baby while I'm out touring," that wouldn't be allowing her to do what she's best at.
Shires: That'd be allowing us to split up.
Isbell: Well, yeah. Even if you for some strange reason tolerated that, it would, I think, take the overall effectiveness and happiness of our family down quite a bit. ... It's different for every family. It works on a case-by-case basis. But if you go by that guiding principle of, "Let everybody do what's going to make them really happy and satisfied," and try to do whatever needs to be done so that's possible, then I think everybody winds up happier. I really believe that.
Hight: During Jason's series of six shows at the Ryman Auditorium, all the artists selected to open were women. What did you hope to accomplish?
Shires: I'll tell you what I was hoping to accomplish ... proof that there is more than your one garnish that can open a show for you. When I called the [country radio] stations, many, many times people would say, "Nobody's requesting women." And I would say, "How could they request them if you don't play them?"
Isbell: It's not like I was doing some kind of f****** charity thing by getting women to open for me. They were as good as any openers I could have picked. Our initial couple of ideas were women already, and then we decided, "Let's just go through with this and have all women open." And I think it made for a better show.
If I could handpick a festival [lineup], there would most certainly be as many women as men, possibly more, and there would be all different ethnicities and all different types of music. I think the problem is certain people who program radio stations and put on festivals and put together award shows don't necessarily believe that the quality would be better if everybody was included. Either that or quality is not what they're aiming for. And I don't know which of those two is worse.
Hight: You've been working against an interesting backdrop this year. The Americana world reckoned with its relationship to diversity, and in the country mainstream, the responses to political issues and tragic events was more quiet than many expected. What do you feel the parameters are when it comes to discussing matters of social and political importance?
Shires: I don't really have anything nice to say about pop-country radio.
Isbell: Some people are standing up at the right times. But for the most part, the popular country world has remained silent in a way that just looks really, really bad to me. ... I think a lot of people are shirking their responsibility. I feel like anybody who has a voice should use it for good things, and good things aren't amassing as much money and popularity as you can. I think too many people are afraid of alienating their audience because they don't really realize how many people there are in the world and how many people you can get to buy tickets to your shows.
Shires: I wonder, too — there must be a percentage of people that just don't care.
Isbell: Oh yeah, a lot of people don't care. And those are all people whose problems have been solved on their behalf. If you're the kind of person who's getting pulled over by the cops every time you go anywhere, even though you've done nothing wrong, then you are concerned about race and your community. The people who really don't care are the people who don't realize how easy they have it.
Hight: Jason, by naming your album The Nashville Sound, you were claiming your place in a musical movement that exists outside of, and even in opposition to, the country mainstream. What did you make of it when the CMA voters, who work in the country music industry, nominated it for album of the year?
Isbell: I think it's nice when a lot of people recognize the work you do and say that that work qualifies to be mentioned with far more popular pieces of work. That's a nice thing. I don't want to seem like I'm not grateful for that, because I am. Also, I saw it as an opportunity for somebody like me and Amanda to cross the aisle and bring some of our weirdness to the party. I think that's good. But also I really felt like they were looking for something credibility-related from me, that I didn't need from them, that I don't really need from anybody. I think that's the difference. People like us and Sturgill, for example — he's not looking for anybody to make him credible.
Hight: Though you weren't able to attend the awards, I saw you chime in with Brad Paisley on Twitter about the CMA's attempt to censor reporters covering the event. Amanda wound up representing for both of you on the red carpet.
Shires: I decided to go at the last minute. I mean, I was home and Jason was on the road. ... I'd never been to that, so why not try it out? There was some spectacle, and I don't know if I'm just fascinated by spectacle, but I like to try new things.
Isbell: Speaking about the Brad Paisley thing, I was very happy to see that, because I feel like that might not have changed had one of the two hosts of the show not spoken out about it. I think that took a lot of guts on his part. And he was really nice to Amanda that night, too.
Shires: And I got to wear my tank top.
Isbell: And she met Garth.
Shires: He was handing water bottles to the folks that were doing security.
Hight: You had an ally in Sturgill Simpson, who trolled the awards show by busking outside.
Isbell: We had dinner with him last night and we didn't talk about it that much, his appearance at the CMAs. We talked about it for just a couple minutes and then he and I started talking about sneakers.
Hight: Amanda, you spearheaded a benefit show for voter registration efforts this year, and tried to spotlight the fact that the state where you presently live, Tennessee, was near the bottom in terms of voter turnout. What was that about for you?
Shires:. I think it's important that there be places that are easy to access for all people in all neighborhoods. ... Participating, to me, is not just shouting your beliefs at Facebook or whatever. I think [it's] taking time to go to things and being a part of things and experiencing community not through a screen. You meet people and you're like, "OK, that's different than the person on the Internet."
Isbell: Yeah, you're held to some kind of accountability if you're looking people in the face — what used to be called community outreach.
Shires: And the voter registration thing, it didn't matter to me if you were Republican or Democrat or whatever.
Isbell: But it's really obvious that there's one side that tries to keep everyone from voting. So, we didn't make it an issue. They did.
Hight: How do you define having influence at this point in your lives and careers?
Shires: Maybe, whatever influence we have, other songwriters or women or whatever can feel like they can have a place too, I guess. Or that they don't have to do things the way that we've been taught we have to do them.
Isbell: I think the best thing you can do for any sort of songwriter or artist who's coming up behind you is make them feel more comfortable in being who they are and in making the kind of art they want to make. In a lot of situations, that's making women more comfortable with their own voice, without having to meet certain criteria to be successful. In my situation, I think sometimes it's OK for me to tell the Southern white man that they can show their feelings, or that they can react when somebody says something around them that's not acceptable. I think if you can make people feel more comfortable doing the right thing, you've really left something successful behind you.
The word "influence" is a hard one for me, because I don't see it necessarily as influence as much as I see it as people seeing that something is possible. People see through my little record label that it's possible in some ways to compete with the big boys.
Shires: We can't comprehend if we have influence or not, really, because we just hang out together. And we're hermits.