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Jason Isbell's Southern comfort

Jason Isbell grew up in Green Hill, a small town in northern Alabama, the eldest son of a musical family raised in the local Pentecostal church — an unlikely beginning on a path that led him to a six-year run with alt-country rockers the Drive-By Truckers and his current place as a critically revered interpreter of modern culture.

As novelist Walter Kirn told Rolling Stone: "One of the reasons I feel he's such a necessary artist for these times is that in an age when people are kind of all in their bubbles and their little social media isolation chambers, he — like Walt Whitman did, say — gives us a portrait of ourselves as a collective, piece by piece, person by person."

After two albums that doused Isbell (pronounced IZ-bull) in critical acclaim — 2013’s “Southeastern” and 2015’s Grammy winner “Something More Than Free” — the 38-year-old guitarist and songwriter is touring with music from a new album, “The Nashville Sound,” that continues his winning streak. In its dark poetry, and stark, personal impressions of what he sees around him, Isbell has sculpted a monument to these complicated times, touching on economic struggle, prejudice, privilege and isolation.

As someone who grew up in a “country ghetto,” Isbell may be uniquely positioned to act as an empathetic translator of blue-collar concerns. It’s a role he comes to uneasily.

“What I want people to know is that I’m not an idiot,” he says with a laugh. “I just tell my stories. If that reminds them that maybe all Southern people don’t act in a certain stereotypical way, then that’s great. But, you know, how people view white Southerners is really the least of our problems right now. If I’m standing up for anybody, it’s for myself and my family and hopefully some people who don’t have the privileges and the opportunities that even the white working class has.”

Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, will feature songs from “The Nashville Sound” on Friday, July 21, at the Fillmore Miami Beach. Among them will be “White Man’s World,” a vividly drawn picture of race, gender inequality and Southern history and traditions. Here Isbell, husband to fiddler-songwriter Amanda Shires, with whom he has a nearly 2-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose, reflects on some of the issues he explores in the song.

I'm a white man living in a white man's world

Under our roof is a baby girl

I​​​​​ thought this world could be her's one day

But her momma knew better.

“I wrote it after the election, the American presidential election. I was home alone with my daughter. I just remember being really glad that she was too young to understand what was going on, because that got me out of having to explain it to her. … I don’t really believe that my daughter changed my views on things like that, but certainly when she came along it really made me feel more of a responsibility to speak up, you know? Just to try to represent her in the best possible light, try to make the world what I want it to be for her. It’s pissing in the ocean, but I’ll do that. Everything I’ve done for most of my life has been pissing in the ocean, or pissing up a rope.”

I'm a white man living in a white man's town

Want to take a shot of cocaine and burn it down

Momma wants to change that Nashville sound

But they're never gonna let her.

“Being in a relationship with another musician, who does a very, very similar thing to what I do for a living,” Isbell says, “has made it obvious to me that what we like to think of as an enlightened corner of the world, which is the music industry, it’s still nowhere near equal.”

There's no such thing as someone else's war

Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for

Still breathing, it's not too late

We're all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.

“Yeah, I’m optimistic. I’m alive. I think survival is an optimistic maneuver. If I wasn’t somewhat optimistic, I’d be jumping off a building. I don’t think it’s gonna get a whole lot worse. Here’s the thing, OK, to me, I feel like if these guys don’t kill all of us, then things will get better. Right now, I think it’s about 60-40 that they won’t kill all of us. They’re pretty bad at even pulling off their stupid ideas, as we see with what happened with the health-care bill. They can’t even agree amongst their own on how to f— poor people over. [Laughs] … What will wind up happening, is people will start to change their minds a little bit, and people who maybe haven’t spoken out so loudly in the past will start to be heard.”

I'm a white man living on a white man's street

I've got the bones of the red man under my feet

The highway runs through their burial grounds

Past the oceans of cotton.

“I think a lot of problems come from ignoring something, or forgetting something, in an effort to move past it, I’ll say that. I’m one of those people who believes that the more you know about your history and our nation’s history, the less apt you are to make the same mistakes over and over. The teaching of the mistakes that we’ve made in the past is really the only way that the experiment can succeed, the American experiment. There are some parts of our culture and our society that still make me feel a sense of exceptionalism, but a lot of those things are being swallowed up. It’s gotten to the point where we don’t play well with others, and that’s the whole point of being civilized. The only people that don’t see that are people who refuse to see it. The only people who really are supporting Donald Trump at this point are people who are too stubborn to look at what they see as the truth. I don’t think anybody who is not mentally handicapped really, truly believes that he’s the right man for the job.”

I'm a white man looking in a black man's eyes

Wishing I'd never been one of the guys

Who pretended not to hear another white man's joke

Oh, the times ain't forgotten.

“Where I grew up in Alabama, there were a lot of opportunities to stand up for people, whether they were present or not, who might have been different. … I grew up in a very white, male-dominated place. There are a lot of times when I look back and wish I had stood up for myself by standing up for people who were being ridiculed. Usually, it wasn’t when the people were around. I just wish I had made it known earlier that I’m the kind of person who won’t go along with such things. The fact that I have been in that situation myself, might let more people listen to what I have to say, as long as I can continue to summon the courage to tell those stories.”

[Refrain]

There's no such thing as someone else's war

Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for

You're still breathing, it's not too late

We're all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.

“In all honesty, I don’t think things are all that bad. What’s happened is that we’ve sawed off a couple rungs on the ladder we were in the process of climbing as a society. People aren’t getting along right now, as they were a couple of years ago, but they’re getting along way better than they were 50 years ago. I think if you were to say things are as bad as they’ve ever been at this point in time, then you’d be ignoring a whole lot of struggle and an entire period in the 1860s when we were all shooting each other in fields for something we had no idea what the actual reason for the war was.”

I'm a white man living in a white man's nation

I think the man upstairs must'a took a vacation

I still have faith, but I don't know why

Maybe it's the fire in my little girl's eyes

Maybe it's the fire in my little girl's eyes.

“Through the course of educating my daughter … it will be important for her to be taught, to understand, that everything is temporary. Times when bad behavior is encouraged don’t set precedent, culturally. Those things happen, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen forever. Everything is swallowed by time. None of us is very significant at all. Everything changes.

“Whatever you hold dear, your religions, your countries, your races, your beliefs, all of it will be gone in what amounts to the blink of an eye to a stone. The way I keep myself from giving into it, from being overwhelmed by despair, is I tell myself that just as quickly as things change to the way they are now, they’ll change again.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will perform 8 p.m. Friday, July 21, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave. Strand of Oaks is the opening act. Tickets cost $40.50-$52.50. Call 800-745-3000 or go to FillmoreMB.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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