That experience, from meeting Oklahomans in the rural areas where the movie was shot to watching Scorsese work, figured into “Weathervanes,” Isbell’s new album, from the writing of the songs to his production of the record.
So how and why did Isbell end up in the movie? Did he always want to be an actor?
“I didn’t really want to be an actor, but I think I wanted to act,” Isbell said in a late-April phone interview. “I was looking for a way to help somebody tell a story. We were locked down, COVID kept us from touring. So I asked my manager to see if there were any television shows or movies I could get on. I’d never done that before. I played myself on an episode of ‘Billions’ and was an extra on the ‘Deadwood’ movie on HBO, because I loved ‘Deadwood.’”
The motion picture Isbell’s management found for him was Scorsese’s adaptation of the 2017 best-selling non-fiction book about a series of murders that took place in the Osage Nation after oil was discovered on tribal land, triggering an FBI investigation.
“I just kept auditioning,” Isbell said. “I knew I didn’t have any experience. But I told them if they gave some instruction, I could do it. And I wound up on set with Scorsese, (Robert) DeNiro and (Leonardo) DiCaprio. It was terrifying. I was scared to death. That felt really good. It is important to challenge myself as I get older and do some new things creatively.”
Isbell landed the role of Bill Smith (spoiler alert – he was one of the murder victims back in 1917) and found himself spending time on the movie set observing Scorsese and meeting folks who live nearby.
Some of them made their way into the songs that populate “Weathervanes,” another showcase for the work of one of today’s best songwriters.
While he’s known as a great guitarist, from his days with Drive-By Truckers onward, Isbell knows it’s the songs that have made him a four-time Grammy-winning Americana star and one of the most respected musicians of any genre over the course of the eight previous albums he’s released since leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007.
“That’s the part that really matters for me,” Isbell said. “There’s a whole lot of great singers and guitar players on my street in Nashville. I have to be able to write to stand out.”
Like much of his earlier work, the songs on ‘’Weathervanes” are often sad character studies of, to pick a few examples, a depressed suicidal woman (“Death Wish”), a copper-stealing, pain-killer addict who can’t go back to work (“King of Oklahoma”) and a kid kicked out of foster care who winds up living in a KOA campground (“Volunteer”).
“Suffering builds character and it also builds characters if you’re trying to tell a story,” Isbell said. “That’s what’s interesting to me in other people’s songs and they’re the kind I write myself.”
So how does he write those songs and come up with those characters?
“They start from being aware of my surroundings,” Isbell said. “I spent a lot of time in Oklahoma when I was making the movie. I met a lot of people there, people who were a lot like those where I grew up in Alabama. I’d wonder what this guy’s life is like and you go from there.
“Part of your life, your history starts to find its way in, if you’re open to that. Then it’s a matter of editing, of getting the rhyme right, of getting the musical flow,” he said. “The inspiration part is easy. It’s the editing, the crafting, where you make the song. That’s really the job as much as anything. It’s taste – for any creative person.”
The time in Oklahoma not only influenced the songs on “Weathervanes,” it filtered into the making of the album.
“It definitely influenced how we made this album, just seeing the way Marty (Scorsese) worked and the fact that he had such confidence in his vision. He would accept ideas and collaboration,” Isbell said. “Just to watch somebody work like that, he was able to create a whole universe with his vision. He’d keep some ideas and throw some out.
“I had a vision for how I wanted the record to sound. With that direction, we let the band have some freedom,” Isbell said. “My production style is, I try to get the right people in the room and let them play. We viewed it more as a band record than a solo project. I wanted to make it feel more like a live show.”
Given that creative aim and their finished sound, the “Weathervanes” songs were ready to be immediately plugged into the shows Isbell is playing with his band, the 400 Unit.
“I thought about that a little in the studio,” Isbell said. “We’ve got a pretty big catalog at this point. I can play a whole lot of shows without playing the same song twice. I don’t want it to be in there because it’s the newest song. I don’t want it to be when everybody goes to the bathroom or the bar. It has to be in there for a purpose. I’ve never made promotion my priority, maybe it’s the third or fourth reason. I want to make a show that’s meaningful and moves people.’”
As our time on the phone wound down, we asked Isbell “is it still satisfying?”
He responded, “I still love it. I remember more of it now. The traveling has gotten easier, that makes it more enjoyable. Back in the old days, it was driving six, seven hours in a van, getting out, unloading and setting up our equipment, getting over the hangover by getting drunk again.”
“Nowadays, I show up pretty well rested, walk around town, go to sound check if we need one,” Isbell said. “I can hear everything, we’ve got this great sound system and engineer and I’ve got these guitars and amps that I really wanted to have. I’ve got to let myself enjoy it.”
Then he veered into some revealing territory that confirmed what I’ve long believed, that shows in “secondary markets” are “better” for both the artist and the audience. (Note: the author is based in Lincoln, NE.)
“Something I’ve found interesting since we started touring again after lockdown, a lot of times, it isn’t the major cities that have been exciting for me. It’s been the smaller towns,” Isbell said. “You can tell the audiences are really appreciative that you came there to play. We were touring up through Canada and down to places like Bozeman (Montana), people were so excited we came through and gave them something to do. I get inspired by that. Nobody ever says thank you for coming to New York City.”
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit will be playing at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on June 25.