Pioneering Artist Jason Isbell Discusses the Evolving Role of His Guitar Throughout His Musical Journey

“I’m not sure if anyone writes songs with electric guitars anymore, but I certainly still do,” Jason Isbell tells American Songwriter from his home outside of Nashville. “Not because I think it’s better or anything, but just because that’s what I know.”

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A North Alabama native, Isbell was born to teenage parents within a broadly musical family. His grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher who played a hand in rearing him, introduced young Isbell to the mandolin at age 6. It was the only string instrument small enough for his hands. Together, they listened to Gospel and Bluegrass music, slowly adding acoustic, then electric guitar into the mix. 

Isbell picked up his first Fender at 12 years old, and the iconic brand has since become a mainstay of his coalescent sound. On May 11, in collaboration with Fender, the artist announced the Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster®—a testament to his musical journey and the spanning influences that led him here.

It wasn’t until his teens that Isbell found an outlet for his welling emotions, putting pen to paper with the help of an electric guitar. He says, “It just sort of made sense. There were things I wanted to say and feelings that I wanted to get out, and I just naturally started writing my songs because I was already playing other people’s.”

Now, at 42 years old, this process remains intact. 

“I think having a few years under my belt as a guitar player before I started writing songs gave me an advantage because it’s easier to find melodies and chord progressions,” he says. “I just had more options when it came time to write songs.”

He first joined the Southern rock outfit Drive-By Truckers in 2001 in what felt like a breakthrough. His subsequent exit in 2007, followed by a rocky road to sobriety, brought him back down to earth. His path eventually steadied into his solo artistry. Stepping out of the Southern rock box of writing for The Truckers, Isbell found freedom. He says, “It occurred to me I could do whatever I wanted; I didn’t have to aim my songs in any specific direction.”

After he married Amanda Shires—a fellow artist-songwriter, the mother of his five-year-old daughter, and a fiddler and vocalist in his band, The 400 Unit—Isbell continued to bloom. As his musical identity expanded into “storyteller,” his relationship with the guitar shifted.

“I would still be writing songs, even if I wasn’t any good at it,” he laughs. “But the fact that I’ve had success as a songwriter probably taught me I shouldn’t fill up all these songs with guitar solos—there are plenty of places people can go if they want to hear great guitar players. I realized that if I’m going to stand out, I need to use my instrument to express myself rather than to show people my technical ability.”

Among the most prolific songwriters of his time, Isbell credits a past he points to regularly in his poignant lyricism. He’s particularly haunted by those stumbling years between 2007 and his post-rehab release  of Southeastern in 2013. From where he stands, now nine years sober, Isbell smirks at the irony.

 His most turbulent days compounded into a storybook of redemption in which he plays both the antagonist and protagonist. As the writer, he paints himself in the truest light that shines through the retrospection. 

“Once I got sober, got my life cleaned up, I had something to talk about that wasn’t just your typical love song or rock n’ roll song,” he says. “I had a story to tell. And the best way I knew how to tell that story was by writing songs. It was fortunate that all of those things lined up when they did.”

Humbly seeking the silver linings of his past, Isbell says, “I didn’t have the experience that would lend itself to transcendent songs. And when all that stuff happened to me, I was figuring out how I failed, how I wanted to live, and what my priorities were,” he says. 

“As a songwriter, you could take those moments in your life, document them in your work, and take things to another level—write about something more than just your own selfish interests. And so I got really lucky that way.”

His latest album, Reunions, exhibits this balance he’s struck within his artistry. “It Gets Easier” pushes the limitations of his utilization policy, boasting the guitar tone that is unique to a Telecaster. It’s reminiscent of his earlier days coming off of the Truckers and in a similar vein to the rock anthem, “Super 8,” featured on Southeastern.

The latter patches together moments to detail a seemingly routine spiral in a seedy motel room. The humor attached to his lived experience battling addiction adds a human element that works similarly to the raw accounts shared in the more recent “It Gets Easier.” 

Last night, I let myself remember / Times I forgot a woman’s name / I blacked out behind the wheel / How tight the handcuffs feel / My daughter’s eyes when she’s ashamed, he laments over rock tones.  

As a father now, his five-year-old daughter ,Mercy Rose, holds him accountable. Closing Reunions with “Letting You Go”—the most directly narrative track of the collection—clarifies this. 

“Plenty of women I know have done a lot of work to come to terms with the fact that their standards can be higher than the standards set by their father,” he says. “I would rather my daughter not have to do all that work.”

Isbell continues, “You have to be the guy who pulls up in the driveway because otherwise, you’re just a hypocrite. If you’re going to have high standards for the people that spend time with your daughter, you’re going to have to set high standards for yourself.”

To keep his character in check, Isbell points to a practice referred to in the AA room as “Rigorous Honesty”—the idea that it is often easier to be honest with loved ones than it is to be honest with ourselves. It requires an acute self-examination, paying close attention to the truth, which Isbell acknowledges is a “hard lesson to learn.”

“I just want her to be okay with being herself,” he says. “If we can be honest with ourselves, then everything else will fall into place. But people lie to themselves every single day about their circumstances, situations, and fears. We, as a country, got into a lot of trouble because people would rather be angry than admit to being afraid. You don’t grow that way. Until I went through the recovery process, I wasn’t very good at it at all. And I still work on it daily.”

Isbell’s strength lies in this practice, growing comfortable with the truth. His keen musicianship as a guitarist simply lends a hand in expressing vulnerabilities. 

The new custom double-bound Telecaster reflects the miles between Isbell’s early years and his current success with Fender’s Road Worn® aging process, which gives it the look and feel of a well-used instrument.  

To personalize the project, the artist sent the Fender team his favorite guitar—a 1959 vintage telecaster. Their tone guru, Tim Shaw, held onto it for a while, studying the structure for the pattern. Fender then meticulously crafted a custom guitar with a close approximation of both the original pickup and neck profile.

“So it plays and feels like a very particular old guitar that I like,” says Isbell. He and the team went back and forth about the finish on the neck. “I wanted to feel like it had been played, which is hard to do with a new guitar, especially if you’re not spending custom shop money,” he continues. “But I think they did a great job with that.”

The Chocolate Sunburst color contrasts the cream double-binding to align with Isbell’s vision for the product. The vintage-inspired mid-’60 “C”-shaped maple neck and 21-fret rosewood make for a retro sound, demonstrating the cherished details that transformed his favorite Tele into a songwriting tool used to refine roots music. Intentionally priced at an affordable rate, Fender’s Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster symbolizes his evolving role in music history as he pioneers the soundscape of modern rock.

The Grammy Award-winning artist observes the revered tradition of acoustic roots music, but Isbell’s work is not a revival. Instead, the artist chronicles the contemporary, building upon foundational influences to deliver a blend of country, blues, and rock & roll, palatable for young and old listeners alike. Tactfully, he wields age-old traditions as a vessel for his carefully crafted song stories that speak directly to modern problems. 

The music industry classifies this as “Americana.” According to Isbell, “you could call anything roots-based Americana music.” He adds, “I hear roots in everything, every genre. But I don’t spend any time on the genre question.”

Born just across the river from Muscle Shoals, his idea of roots music reflects everything from the traditional bluegrass and church music, on which he was raised, to the soul-influenced rock & roll and country music that pinned North Alabama on the map in the 1960s and 70s. 

“I’m too busy making music to think about whether or not it fits in certain boxes,” he continues. “I know you have to tell people what something is to get them to listen to it the first time, so that’s fine. All I know is that there’s an excitement that comes with playing electric instruments. I love acoustic guitars, but they don’t excite me in the same way that electric instruments do.”

Available through Fender at just under $1500, The Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster, he says, “is not terribly expensive, especially for what it is. It’s something many people can buy and enjoy, and I’m real proud of that.” 

He adds, “The most beautiful thing about the guitar, to me, is I’ve had equal moments of joy sitting in my room, playing the guitar by myself as I have standing on stage, playing it for 10,000 people. And there aren’t a whole lot of objects you can use in both of those settings to get that much joy.”

The custom guitar marks Isbell’s first collaboration with the iconic guitar brand as part of its Artist Signature Series. Check out Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster®, inspired by his favorite teles from childhood through his current success here.

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