When Jason Isbell was a kid growing up in rural Alabama, around grade four or five, a teacher asked his class to read a short story and take a quiz. True or false, pretty simple stuff. One of the questions asked about a shotgun explosion referred to ammunition as buckshot. Because the story specifically mentioned birdshot, Isbell went with “wrong”. His teacher wrote it down, insisting that there was no difference between buckshot and bird shot. But Isbell knew full well that there were, since he had grown up in the countryside of Alabama and would go hunting with his father. He wouldn’t let go.
âI ended up going through multiple levels of discipline for it just because I wouldn’t back down. I mean, I’ve been in trouble for weeks and weeks, âhe tells me from his home outside of Nashville, where he lives with his wife, musician Amanda Shires, and their daughter, Mercy Rose. . âThese things happened to me a lot. I have developed a tolerance for it, if not a taste for it, being the squeaky wheel in these situations.
Isbell is still the squeaky wheel, even as his platform has gotten bigger and the stakes higher. In August, as he and his band, The 400 Unit, prepared to hit the road for the first time in two years, he announced that spectators would have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend his shows. Isbell made this decision without hesitation, but it was loaded with a current of anxiety. âIt’s one of my rules for me, that if something is a little scary, maybe it’s because it’s the right thing to do,â he says. âA lot of the mistakes I have made in my life are due to not making decisions at all and letting the decisions make themselves. “
The backlash came quickly and strongly. Isbell has found himself at the center of an ongoing debate, against the backdrop of an already politicized pandemic beyond measure. Some venues refused to comply with its health and safety standards, so these shows were moved elsewhere or canceled altogether. Critics on Twitter have gone to town. âPeople are shocked when I say something like, ‘I don’t want you to die coming to my concert,’â he notes wryly.
Either way, he doesn’t care about the fight. âI am a white man from Alabama. I can take a lot of criticism because I got so much encouragement, âIsbell says. One could say that he is even happy about it. âMy therapist tells me that it’s great for me to chat with people on the Internet because I don’t do it with the people who really interest me at home,â he says. On Twitter, where he has more than 400,000 followers, he is known for his funny sense of humor and accessibility as much as for his political positions. Sometimes they cross paths in unexpected and glorious ways, like they did in 2019, when Isbell tweeted that he thought no one needed to own an assault weapon. A stranger replied seriously, “How do I kill the 30-50 feral pigs that are scurrying around my backyard in 3-5 minutes while my little kids are playing?” Instant and delirious virality cue. “It was the most popular thing I have ever done in my whole life,” he said impassively.