What seemed a natural musical match – the master Merle Haggard and his fast-rising acolyte Jason Isbell – fell through when Merle Haggard, the country outlaw whose tales of common men dealing with hard times made him a legend died in April. In the wake of his passing, an Augusta co-headlining date with Isbell was cancelled, leaving Isbell to carry on alone.
Isbell will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, at Bell Auditorium, 712 Telfair St. Also on the bill is Tommy Emmanuel. Tickets start at $25 at augustaentertainmentcomplex.com.
“I really hate the fact that I’m not going to be able to see him play anymore,” Isbell said of Haggard during a recent telephone interview. “And I was looking forward to getting to know him a little. It’s inopportune and really heartbreaking. I was going to be doing shows with a hero. I think they will be very special, and very sad, shows because of that.”
While much of the territory Isbell covers – particularly on last year’s Something More Than Free – is similar to Haggard’s working man blues, he said inspiration comes from a variety of sources.
“I really try to use whatever I can find,” he said. “That can be a phrase, a piece of a melody, an idea – you just have to be open to it when it comes.”
And when it comes, he said, it is important to serve the song. That ethos had made Isbell difficult to categorize as an artist. While many saddle him with a country tag, it’s worth noting that Something More Than Free managed to top not only Billboard magazine’s Country Chart, but the Folk and Rock charts as well.
“I used find that frustrating, but you learn to take it in stride,” Isbell said. “I do think classification is missing the point. I remember once we had this tour manager with us for a couple of dates and we were crossing into Canada. The guys at the border asked what kind of music we played and he said blues rock. We kind of lost it on that one.”
While Isbell is hesitant to pigeonhole his music, he will admit to being an album artist. He said each record he releases tends to have unifying ideas, be they musical, thematic or both. The styles may vary from album to album, but rarely from song to song. Where Something More Than Free features rich production that recalled the Nashville sounds of the ’60s, Southeastern, the album that preceded it was a far more spare, acoustically-driven affair.
“I like the idea of having a style,” he said. “It’s the threads that run through a collection of songs that make it strong. Besides, it can be pretty hard to say the kind of things I want to say in the space of a single four-minute song.”
The secret, he said, is understanding that songs written at a specific time, be it days, weeks or a few months, will reflect his interests, tastes and ideas at that time.
“It really comes down to a series of small decisions,” Isbell said describing his creative process. “And my tastes do change every couple of years. I think that is true of everyone. But if I make an honest document, well, then things just seem to work.”
While Isbell admits that Haggard’s death affected him both professionally and as a fan, his life in recent years has been marked by big moments that often provided both challenges for him as a performer and inspiration as an artist. Whether his now well-documented battles with the bottle and eventual sobriety, his marriage to fellow musician Amanda Shires or the recent birth of his first child, Isbell’s life has grown considerably more complicated. Still, he insists he has no plans to slow his prolific recording, writing and performance schedule.
“I mean, I still have a lot of downtime,” he said with a laugh. “Sure, I have a job that is a lot of work, but it’s not like I’m out there working 60 hours a week like a lot of other people. I think, considering what I get to do, if I say I don’t have time, well, that’s just mismanagement on my part.”