Jason Isbell’s scheduled phone interview with Oklahoma Gazette came less than 24 hours after former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore was defeated in his campaign for United States Senate — one of the most nationally followed and hotly contentious statewide elections in recent memory.
That day would be a heck of a time to speak with any Alabamian, let alone Isbell, a Democrat and Green Hill native who might be one of the most politically outspoken country artists today. The Grammy-winning guitarist and singer-songwriter now makes his home in Nashville, Tennessee, but he used his platform to try to make a difference in his native state.
On Dec. 9, three days before election day, Isbell played a “get out the vote” show in Huntsville to encourage people to vote for Moore’s Democratic opponent Doug Jones, who went on to win by less than 2 percentage points against Moore. Around the nation, the election grabbed headlines because of accusations of sexual abuse and child molestation levied against Moore.
Isbell, a 38-year-old never shy about making his beliefs known, and his band the 400 Unit will play their first show of 2018 8 p.m. Jan. 4 at The Criterion, 500 E. Sheridan Ave.
Isbell’s latest album The Nashville Sound, released in June, is an alternative country record that strongly resonates in the political and social climate of today. The song “White Man’s World” takes on added poignancy in light of the Moore campaign, characterized by some for tone-deafness — or worse — to issues involving race and religion.
“There’s no such thing as someone else’s war,” Isbell sings in the song. “Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for.”
Alabama and Oklahoma are similar in many ways. Alabama ultimately chose not to elect Moore, but how might the election have played out in other states? No one can know for sure.
“I don’t know,” Isbell told Gazette. “But I do know that if Alabama can [vote for Doug Jones], then anyone can do it.”
Oklahoma Gazette: As a Democrat and native Alabamian, do you feel proud of your home state today? Or are you concerned for how many people voted the other way?
Jason Isbell: I’m amazed that it got as far as it got. I definitely didn’t think that Roy Moore was going to be the GOP candidate. And I certainly didn’t think that the Republican Party would put that kind of support behind him. But I’m happy that he didn’t win; I’m happy that Doug Jones won. Doug’s a good man, and he seems like a good person for the job. It’s the first time in 25 years we’ve had a Democrat in that seat, so I’m happy about that.
So yeah, it could have been worse. I definitely allowed myself some time to celebrate and be happy about it. There’s a reason to celebrate avoiding catastrophe, but you should also look at the reason we were that close to catastrophe in the first place. There’s still a long way to go before things are right. I feel like if everyone in the state and, honestly, everyone in the country, were given the availability and convenience of voting that some people are used to having, then we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. I think the more votes that we get, the more people that participate in the process, usually the better the outcome.
OKG: You played that “get out the vote” concert for Doug Jones. What was that like?
Isbell: It was great. It was nice to be surrounded by that many like-minded people in Alabama. It felt good.
You know, I did that, and my wife (singer-songwriter and 400 Unit band member Amanda Shires), she did a voter registration event earlier in the year in which we got a lot of people together and put on a concert in Nashville. We do those kinds of things so we’re able to sleep at night more than anything else. We have a lot of hope, but at the same time, we’re not going to think that the effort we put in tipped the scales in one way or another. But it does help us, at the end of the day, feel like we’ve done something rather than just staying in our comfort zone and just tweet about the candidates that we want to win. It’s nice to get out, look people in the eye and use the talents that we have to try and effect a little bit of change.
OKG: With social media, it’s easy to put out a tweet and feel like you’re making a difference, but most of the time, it’s not taking any progressive action toward accomplishing anything.
Isbell: No, and very often it’s preaching to the choir. I think there are some people who have the kind of following who might actually be swayed one way or the other. That’s why I really get disappointed in a lot of country singers who don’t make a statement one way or the other. I feel like they’re in a position different from mine. I don’t consider myself to be a mainstream country singer. I think that position is one where we might actually have people change their minds because of the things that you say. So I get a little bit frustrated when those folks just refuse to talk about the issues.
OKG: Last night, as the results were coming in, I spent some time thinking about your song “White Man’s World.” It definitely applies to this election, and a big part of Jones’ victory was getting the black vote.
Isbell: That’s very true. And it’s not easy for a lot of black folks in Alabama to vote. And for a lot of poor whites also. It’s hard to find a place to go, and it’s hard to get the driver’s license that you need for ID when you’re voting. So yeah, it was a really good thing that these folks actually took time out of their day and went the extra mile to cast a ballot. I mean, you’ve got to take off work, and that’s a very important day of work for a lot of people. Just imagine if you didn’t have an ID — if you didn’t have a driver’s license — and the only way to get one was to drive 50 miles. That’s a Catch-22 right there because you can’t drive 50 miles, legally, without having a driver’s license. The gerrymandering in this state is really disturbing. It’s that way nationwide, but in the South, they get away with a lot more of that than they do in other places.
OKG: Do you think people are more willing to support a tainted candidate like Moore because of the current political climate, or is this an element of a segment of the South that has always existed and is spotlighted because of this unique situation?
Isbell: Oh, it’s always been there. I don’t believe Trump has convinced anybody of anything. I think that the reasons people are supporting him is because their parents supported Republicans and their grandparents supported Republicans and that’s the community that they’re in, the culture that they’re in. Trump, without question, is not bringing in any new Republicans that haven’t been that way since the Bush administration.
So it’s definitely something that’s been around for a long time. I think it’s just now you get to see some of the vitriol that’s associated with some of their beliefs. You also get to see a lot of what the Republicans will put up with in order to vote for their candidate, and that’s pretty disturbing and distressing.
I know a lot of people don’t believe the allegations. Even though it’s pretty obvious to me that Roy Moore did what he was accused of doing — even if you don’t believe those allegations — he was still a terrible, terrible candidate to represent the state of Alabama. You would think it wouldn’t have needed to make much of a difference as to whether or not he got elected. But people overlook a lot.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
8 p.m. Jan. 4
500 E. Sheridan Ave.
Print headline: Reconstruction, Jason Isbell gets political with Oklahoma Gazette in the wake of Roy Moore’s Alabama defeat.