Hey everyone, it’s Anna.
In yesterday’s new episode, I checked in with musician Jason Isbell, about being in recovery during this time of global pandemic, and about how it’s affecting him and his fellow musicians financially. Today, we wanted to share with you the very first conversation that I ever had with Jason along with his wife, Amanda Shires, who's also a musician. I talked with them way back in 2014, before this show had even officially launched. And it’s a conversation that I often think back on fondly. I hope you enjoy it.
JASON ISBELL: I had to go through a series of trials — Herculean trials before she would actually say that we were — that I was her boyfriend. It wasn’t like we were playing the field, it was just like, she just didn’t know she could trust me.
AMANDA SHIRES: It’s hard to trust somebody who’s out carousing every night, you know? Even though he left awesome voicemails.
JI AND AS: Death, Sex and Money.
It’s the show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have been married for about a year, he’s been sober for two.
Jason’s a musician – he got his start with the Southern rock band Drive By Truckers, after playing in bars as a teenager while he was growing up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Amanda's a musician too. She writes and sings, and by the time she was 15, she was already playing with a band called the Texas Playboys. Jason and Amanda both put out solo albums last year, and Jason’s album, called “Southeastern,” hit it really big. A lot of his songs deal with his addiction, and getting sober, and how their love helped him through it.
Now, Jason’s gotten a lot of media attention through all this, but I wanted to talk to both him and Amanda about what it’s been like to go through this as a couple. Because even when there’s really good and exciting change in a relationship, it can take some adjusting.
Jason and Amanda showed up in matching black leather jackets. She wore a lowcut brown lace shirt under hers. For Jason it was a black buttondown. His hair was slicked back hair...very Johnny Cash. They looked like they fit together.
ANNA: ￼How would you describe this first year of marriage that you’ve had together?
JI: I think we did a great job, we got along for a large part of it, and we don’t have the same arguments at the end of the first year that we had at the beginning of the first year. And I think that’s important. I think for anything to be successful, your problems have to become different problems over time.
ANNA: What did you argue about when you first married that now you’re sort of over?
JI: Trust. Trust, we didn’t know each other very well. And I was a philanderer in a past life, so it was hard for her to trust me. That I was actually going to stick around, and wasn’t gonna make a fool of her. I wasn’t an easy person to trust, because I hadn’t been sober very long. I felt like hadn’t been a grownup very long at that point. But I was determined.
ANNA: Would you put it the same way?
AS: Yeah I would say trust too, 'cause, he pretended like he put his trust more than he did. I think. All this technology and stuff, it’s easy to develop a new relationship if you wanted to with somebody else. But we got over that.
JI: Yeah it was scary for me. I’m probably more than a little bit neurotic about certain personal things, and one of them is the fact that it really is so easy—I mean years ago, if somebody called, there was one phone in the house and there was all these songs about "nobody" calling and hanging up as soon as the wife asks who it is. And there aren’t those songs anymore, because you can get in touch with that "nobody" so quickly and so easily. And that did terrify me. And also it was probably something that I had superimposed—what’s the word, for your own concern that you put on somebody?
JI: Projecting, yeah I was probably doing that in a way too. Because I had been such a dog for so long, I probably just sort of expected everybody would be that way, but that’s not the case.
"Projecting," Amanda broke into say. I love that moment, because it shows how they work as a couple. Jason talks a lot more than Amanda does, but when she breaks in, it’s really telling. You get the sense that she’s the one that’s drawn a lot of the lines in their relationship.
ANNA: What prompted rehab?
AS: He needed help and he told me one night, after we were drinking, that he wanted to quit drinking. I was like, alright! He wasn’t the person who could just stop drinking. I remember him trying a couple days in a row. Or a day in a row, trying not to drink after he woke up. There are physical signs, you know, like shaking, and all the things like that. A few nights later, he said the same thing. He was upset, he said, I can’t do it by myself. Well alright, you don’t get to just say over and over that this is what you’re gonna do. So, I texted a couple of his friends, and in the night while I was looking up rehab things and numbers, and I emailed his manager about it to help sort of facilitate going to rehab. And the last night before, because I think he knew he was going to go to rehab, he wanted to do every drug, drink every thing, drink the moonshine, all the late night stuff, it was crazy. It started out like a cool night, you know, and ended up being the worst night ever, ever ever ever. At that point I was not having any more to do with him. Because I was so mad the next morning. Then he was in rehab, and he was writing letters because they don’t let you talk on the phone. He said nice and sweet things, like wait to see the progress and all this kind of stuff. Drew pictures. And I was swayed, to see the progress.
ANNA: But when he went to rehab, you were angry from that last night.
AS: Oh hell yeah.
ANNA: During that period, was it your impression that your relationship was in jeopardy?
JI: I knew it was in jeopardy, but I’d been after her for a long time. A long time. And I never allowed failure to be an option, really. I’m competitive in a lot of things, too many things really, and in that particular area, I just had set in my mind, this is ￼gonna work out, whatever I have to do, whatever I have to say, this is gonna work out. So as nervous as I was, and as scared as I was that she might not be there when I got out, I still was looking for a way to make it work out. And focusing a lot of energy on that. And some part of me thought it would be alright. But I didn’t know for sure.
AS: Early on I didn’t understand his drinking problem, you know early on it’s like, I’m good at going out partying, getting drunk occasionally, whatever. But after a while I realized it was a real problem. And for the rest of my life, I didn’t want to invest in somebody that, you know -
JI: That might not be around for very long.
AS: That, or how sad it would be to watch somebody with so much talent just throw it all away.
ANNA: Were you sober before you moved in together?
JI: Yeah, I got sober right before that. Because when I went to rehab, I still had that house in Alabama, that apartment in Alabama.
AS: Right because his house was above a bar.
AS: You know, I wasn’t gonna move to Alabama. And we found a place in Nashville that we liked.
ANNA: Did you feel ready to move in together, was part of you worried that rehab wouldn’t take?
AS: Mmhm. I mean, it’s something you pay attention to every day. For him, it’s something he has to choose to do every day, keep making good decisions. Yes then I was a little worried, but also I was prepared to be there for him cus he was trying, you know.
JI: She’s good at taking care of people who need it but don’t necessarily deserve it.
￼AS: That’s not true.
JI: It’s true! It's true! I mean I don’t know what people deserve. But I do feel like you do have a good knack for strays.
AS: I don’t know.
JI: You put up with more than you should have, I think, before I got sober. But I’m glad you did, clearly. I just couldn’t have asked that much from you. It was surprising to me in hindsight that the relationship didn’t end sooner.
ANNA: Was the place you decided to move in together, was it like a, we’re gonna buy a couch together kind of move in, and we’re gonna open joint checking accounts kind of move in?
AS: Nuh-uh, it was sort of like, we just found a duplex. Which we live in now. I put my stuff in there, he put his stuff in there, and our stuff got along pretty good. And then a few months later we bought a couch.
JI: Yeah, we did buy a couch. A really wide couch. 'Cause when we get home and we’re not working, it’s our favorite thing to watch movies on the couch. And we couldn’t both fit on the couch that we had before, so we had to get a bigger couch.
AS: I still believe in having our own monies.
JI: Our own cars, our own money.
ANNA: So even after marriage, your finances are separate?
JI: Yeah. We have the same accountant, but our finances are separate. She has her own credit cards and I have mine. Things like that.
ANNA: My impression is that in the last year, you’re probably earning a lot more money than you were before.
AS: He is, I’m not, you know. My record didn’t do as well as his. [Laughs] That’s just the truth of it. But I am glad that he’s doing a lot better.
JI: You’re not doing bad. You made a good amount of money.
AS: Yeah I make a fair amount. I'm happy.
JI: But I had a windfall, you know. I own the record, and it did pretty well, didn’t go through a major label, just went through a distribution company. And, so yeah, I got lucky with that, got real fortunate with it. I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot for us. We’re looking for a house. We’re looking at houses after we leave here.
So we're talking in a Nashville studio, right in the middle of a classic country music rite of passage. When the hit leads to a new house.
But for Jason and Amanda, the must-haves are not very rock n roll.
AS: I would like to live in a place that doesn’t have anyvcarpet. That’s what I want. I got allergies, I don’t want any carpet. I’d like it to have a door that locks.
JI: She needs a bigger bathroom. The place we’re in right now, we each have our own bathroom. But they’re both kind of like hotel sized bathrooms. Like Holiday Inn Express sized bathrooms.
AS: Mine’s smaller than that, mine’s the size of a closet. Which is fine.
JI: You’ve got a Ramada bathroom. Minus the handcuffs somebody left in there. Yeah, you need a bigger bathroom. You need a bigger bathroom.
AS: And there has to be trees 'cause I like to watch the birds.
JI: She’s a birder.
ANNA: So a yard?
AS: No, it doesn’t have to have a yard. It has to have a tree.
JI: I need enough room to eventually throw a baseball with a child, that’s all the yard I need. That’s all I want.
ANNA: How do you talk about kids when you’re touring musicians?
JI: We’ll figure out a way. I mean how many people in history have had children and it’s turned out all right? If that many idiots can have a kid and not screw it up too bad, I think we can pull it off no matter what our schedule looks like.
AS: Mmhm. For me, with kids, it’s a lot of different thoughts that go into it, because generally, when a woman has a child the child is always left to the woman, you know? Or the lady, or whatever. The guy can go off and go touring, go galavanting around the world.
JI: Wife’s from Texas, she’s from Texas.
AS: Yeah. But you know, I understand there’s sacrifice and everything, but I’m still a selfish person. I still want my own career, I want my own freedom and time. I want the—I feel like if I do have a child, it’ll be something I’ll be very involved in. I know I will be. But I think it should be like a co-parenting or shared parenting thing. I’m not sure what exactly that means, but we don’t have to figure it out today, so we’ll worry about it out later.
JI: We can’t share the first part, we can’t share the first part. I mean yeah, I’ll be there, until the baby’s - or I’m gone from the earth, I’ll take care of it, I’m not gonna screw up on that responsibility. But at the same time, that motherly instinct when it’s combating the desire to be your own individual person, for a woman I can’t even weigh in on that. That’s just incredibly difficult for me to even wrap my head around.
So the timeline and the logistics of kids...that’s something for the future Jason and Amanda. For now, these two traveling musicians are figuring out how to deal with a long-distance marriage.
JI: I don’t think you had any reservations about saying, “This is what I need from somebody.”
JI: That's always been for you -
AS: And this is what I don’t need.
The temptations of the road, and the challenges of communicating. That’s all coming up.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
I’m talking to musicians Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires about their marriage. Their wedding was in February of last year.
JI: I just wanted to have a party that all our friends could come to that said, Hey look we’re a thing. We’re permanent.
AS: I like the commitment part of it. It somehow being attached to something bigger. It’s the same as before, the words changed.
ANNA: Amanda I want to ask you how you’ve navigated being Jason’s wife. You had an album that came out last summer. One thing I noticed that’s interesting, you—on Twitter you’re Amanda Isbell. And on your record you’re Amanda Shires. How do you think about your wife identity and your professional identity?
AS: That’s something I’m still thinking on, you know? On Twitter, I changed my name to Amanda Isbell because I was still getting some unwanted messages and things, and I thought that would help for people that still didn’t get it.
ANNA: He put a ring on it!
AS: Yeah exactly! And then, you know, Amanda Shires has always been my name. So I don’t know, I might be Amanda Shires Isbell. Being married to somebody doesn’t change your art. I can change your topics, but it doesn’t change what you’re in the world to do.
ANNA: Have there been moments where you felt competitive?
AS: Nope, I’m not competitive at all. I’m not competitive. Because he doesn’t have a vagina. My problems and my thoughts are all from a woman’s perspective, you can’t compete with that. Or without that. So I guess that’s part of why I’ve not felt competitive, because I understand the different places we’re in, and the different—he’s a white dude.
ANNA: You do different things.
JI: Coming from a different angle, yeah.
ANNA: As your professional lives have changed over the year, I just imagine that there’s a lot of pressure when you’re together, because you know you’re going to part again. How do you balance checking in, saying Oh my gosh this happened, saying this felt this way, this felt this way with just going on a date?
JI: I’m bad at it, I’m bad at it. I have modes, mental modes that I get in, and when I’m on the road, I focus very much on doing the work. On playing the show, on being good every night. And part of me just gets switched off. The part that’s very private and very personal and very intimate. That especially, that part of me gets shut off. So I’ve been trying really hard in the last few months to call that part back up when we’re checking in with each other, when we’re on the phone to actually—cus she feels like she’s talking to a robot sometimes, and I understand that, you know. I say, “Well, I did this, I did that, I did this, now I gotta go do soundcheck.” Well that’s not enough for somebody who’s missing you, you know. And it’s not that I don’t miss her just as much, I just have a set of techniques that I use to keep myself from going out and drinking again. Or to keep myself from getting exhausted on the road. Or whatever. And I need to learn how to navigate those things, and still be personal.
ANNA: I think that’s not just a touring musician. I think a lot of boyfriends and husbands and partners have that when they checking in with their partners.
AS: Yeah, probably. It’s a lot like a—I don’t know. It’s more like a list conversation rather than a conversation conversation.
JI: A lot of the world turns into checklists for me when I’m on the road. Like, ok, this person’s alive, this person’s fed, this person’s good. Soundcheck is done. Everything becomes a checklist except for the actual show.
ANNA: Amanda tell me about the year, you said something that’s happened over the last years, you’ve built trust. How do you build trust when your husband is a touring musician? Because you know what comes with that in a lot of cases.
AS: Oh I do, I’ve seen it myself with other people and everything. I think in my mind— sometimes just ask him or say, have you been talking to any women? You’ve been on your goddamn phone a lot. Then some days, I’m like, whatever he does, I have no control over his actions. And whatever he does or does not do, it’s no reflection on me. It’s the choices he makes. Hopefully we’re in a place where we communicate well enough to know if we’re having problems or not, that way somebody doesn’t go looking for something that we’re not getting from somebody else. Because that’s usually what it is.
JI: Yeah that’s the trick, communicating like that. Saying it.
AS: You can’t steal somebody from somebody. You can’t. They go, it’s their choice. Everybody makes a choice. You know when you cross the line. I don’t know, I just trust him.
JI: We don’t ignore it, the fact that there are other people vying for our attention. And that when you’re on the road, it makes it easier to think you can get away with stuff like that. We discuss it. If somebody’s worried, we talk about it. And usually if you name something, it becomes a lot less difficult to defeat.
ANNA: And so when you get asked, Jason, have you been talking to women, do you feel defensive, or do you feel, oh we’re probably due for a visit?
JI: Usually, no I don’t feel defensive, because it’s regular. It’s a regular thing. It’s almost every day that we say that. Have you been talking to anybody, got any new boyfriends?
AS: Got any new boyfriends? Anybody interesting you?
AS: And you just say yeah, yeah, I’ve been talking to this person about whatever. But you should be able to have friends.
JI: Yeah that’s another thing too, because it’s hard for me to not be possessive, and I don’t want to be possessive, you know. The family I come from is kind of old school about things. I don’t want it be uneven. I don’t want to be the man from Alabama who’s in charge of his wife from Texas. I don’t want it to be that way. I want it to be not possessive at all. I think if you really trust somebody, they should be able to have whatever friends they want to have. But I think the trick is, talk about it. If something happens, if something is gonna happen, it’s going to happen. You can choose to trust somebody or not. If you think you found somebody trustworthy, there’s a better chance you’re not gonna get stomped on. But at the end of the day, you have to understand that yes, somewhere down the line, you might get your heart broken. You know, if you’re a grownup, it won’t kill you.
AS: Sometimes it helps me to say it right out, or say it in my brain, I’ll feel so bad for you if you fuck this up.
JI: She does say that. Feel so bad for you.
AS: I’ll say it like three times. Helps a lot!
JI: That says a lot about her right there, because I believe it, I know it’s a taunt, but I believe should would indeed—if she had to kick me out, she would feel bad for me.
ANNA: She would feel pity, which is not—
JI: She would. It’s not what you want, no. But she would, she would really feel bad for me. Not for having to kick me out. Just for my general situation.
ANNA: Do you have a daily practice of being sober? Is there like a ritual for you?
JI: No, not really. I have certain things that I do when I want to drink. Usually the first thing I do is tell her I want to drink. I’m not gonna have one, so I’m not telling you this so you’ll be on guard. I’m telling you this to say it out loud.
AS: When you do that, it winds up being that we talk about why that is. For me it’s cool, I like to know what and when and why, and then, I’m just glad to be a part of it. I’m proud of you.
JI: Thank you.
ANNA: Have you talked about that, not only the story of your sobriety but your love story has become so much a part of your public personas that it’s in your music—how much you love each other. And your story of your redemption through that love. Is that scary to be so much public of what your public profile is?
JI: Yeah but it’s supposed to be. Things you write that are that personal, they’re supposed to scare you. It’s scary to me that keeping a relationship together these days is as difficult as it is. There’s so many avenues, so many ways out. But the last thing I’m gonna worry about, if she and I ever split up, is being fucking embarrassed at what the fans are gonna think. Who cares? If I have another drink, and then I have a hundred more, the last thing I’m gonna worry about is, Oh my god what are they gonna think I told them all I was sober—I don’t care about that. I’m gonna have a lot of picking myself up to do if either of those things happened. That’s not gonna involve other people’s opinion.
AS: Yeah I like to be cheesy a little bit, I just hope that love can be a little bit more contagious.
JI: There you go.
AS: It’s nice to be able to relate to people that experience similar problems.
JI: Yeah I’m totally with that, if it helps anybody, There’s probably some dude that thinks he’s unlovable somewhere, and drunk and laying in his own piss, and thinking oh that pretty girl next door, she’ll never have anything to do with me. That’s not always true. If it causes people to come to us, or even just think about it in the back of their mind, that there’s some kind of connection, then it’s worth telling your secrets.
That’s Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, from a conversation recorded back in 2014. They’ve both been on our show again since then. We’ve got a roundup of all their Death, Sex & Money appearances in the show notes.
And also there, you can find a link to a playlist of songs that Jason told us he’s been listening to while their family self-quarantines at their home outside of Nashville. It’s a great roundup of new and old songs. I have definitely been enjoying it.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, CA. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to James Ramsay, Chris Bannon, Bill O’Neill, and Jim Briggs for their help on this episode.
Our intern is Ayo Osobamiro.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
And thanks to Jayla Fincher in Parker, Colorado, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Jayla and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And we hope you’ll sign up for our newsletter! We’re sending it out a few times a week right now… and tomorrow, we’ll be sending out our second “homework” assignment… something for you to do and report back on over the weekend. Check it out by subscribing at death sex money dot org slash newsletter.
Thanks for listening, everyone. We’ll be back again next week with more.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.