Jason Isbell strives to find the truth in his songs, whether his characters and stories are real or imagined. There was one song that revealed limitless new songwriting possibilities to him.
As a young teenager, Jason was just starting to combine his two loves of reading and guitar playing. He made his first foray into songwriting when he heard John Prine's ‘Angel from Montgomery’ on his mother’s stereo. The song stuck in his mind, particularly the opening lyric, 'I am an old woman…'
Isbell's instinctive reaction was 'No, you’re not'. But then he came to understand that "Well, you don’t have to be. You can be anybody you want to be in a song."
I grew up around folks that said really brilliant things all the time and they were usually made up of two syllable words.Jason Isbell
Prine as the protagonist drew him in further from there.
"The beaten down resilience that lives in that character has to come from John himself," Isbell says.
"But he’s putting it in a completely different setting and a completely untrustworthy first-person narrator that almost bears no relation to the person who wrote the song and the person who’s singing the song.
"That blew my mind. It told me all at once that I don’t have to tell the truth in these songs, I don’t have to write fiction, I can do something in between.
"At the same time, you can find your way into those songs. Because that song is very much John, it's coming from a place that’s inside of John."
He’s also taken inspiration from the surroundings of his childhood. His keen ear has reaped many rewards from seemingly ordinary situations.
"I grew up around folks that worked every day and they said really brilliant things all the time and they were usually made up of two syllable words," he says.
"When I got older I was hanging out in bars in Alabama hearing people drink and complain, then processing that later on and thinking, 'man that guy has no idea that what he said was really genius'."
It’s a quality Isbell appreciates in Prine.
"The fact that he can be so conversational and still be so poignant, that’s what really appeals to me at the heart of it," he says.
"He writes songs that sound like they could have slipped out. Like he could have sat down and wrote them in the time it takes to sing them. And I know that’s not the case, I know he’s somebody who puts work into what he does. But, by the time he gets a finished product, it sounds so natural.
"He makes it sound like anybody could do it, when in truth, that is not the case at all."
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Jason Isbell on Don't Look Back.