Jason Isbell: Singer-Songwriter, Public Health Ambassador

When Jason Isbell was a kid growing up in rural Alabama, sometime around the fourth or fifth grade, a teacher had his class read a short story and take a quiz. True or false, simple enough stuff. One of the questions asked about a shotgun blast and referred to the ammo as buckshot. Because the story specifically mentioned birdshot, Isbell went with “false.” His teacher marked it wrong, insisting that there was no difference between buckshot and birdshot. But Isbell knew damn well that there was, on account of growing up in rural Alabama and going hunting with his dad. He would not let up.

“I wound up going through multiple levels of discipline for this just because I wouldn’t back down. I mean, I was in trouble for weeks and weeks,” he tells me from his home outside Nashville, where he lives with his wife, the musician Amanda Shires, and their daughter, Mercy Rose. “These things happened a lot to me. I developed a tolerance for it, if not a taste for it, being the squeaky wheel in those situations.”

Isbell is still the squeaky wheel, though his platform has gotten bigger and the stakes higher. In August, as he and his band, The 400 Unit, were preparing to hit the road for the first time in two years, he announced that concertgoers would have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend his shows. Isbell made that decision without hesitation, but it was charged with a current of anxiety. “That’s one of my rules for myself, that if something’s a little bit frightening, that might be because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “A lot of the mistakes I’ve made in my life have been due to not making decisions at all and just letting decisions make themselves.”

The backlash came fast and strong. Isbell found himself at the center of an ongoing debate, against the backdrop of a pandemic that’s already been politicized beyond measure. Certain venues refused to comply with his health and safety standards, so those shows were moved elsewhere or canceled altogether. Detractors on Twitter went to town. “People are shocked when I say something like, ‘I don’t want you to die from coming to my concert,’” he notes wryly.

In any case, he doesn’t mind the fight. “I’m a white man from Alabama. I can take a lot of criticism because I have received so much encouragement,” Isbell explains. You could say that he even welcomes it. “My therapist tells me it’s very good for me to argue with people on the internet, because then I don’t do that with the people that I actually care about in my home,” he says. On Twitter, where he has over 400,000 followers, he’s known for his droll sense of humor and approachability as much as his political stances. Sometimes they unexpectedly, gloriously intersect, as they did in 2019, when Isbell tweeted that he believed nobody needed to own an assault weapon. A stranger earnestly replied, “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” Cue instant, delirious virality. “That was the most popular thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” he deadpans.

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