A few weeks ago, Jason Isbell was playing at a festival with the 400 Unit, his longtime band. They started to play “Cover Me Up,” a shatteringly intimate declaration of love from Isbell’s breakthrough 2013 album “Southeastern.” It was the first time he’d played it at a festival since the song became perhaps his most popular.
To his amazement, “it just hit me: Everybody here knows this song,” he said recently. “And it was sort of breathtaking for me because I never expected to have a song like that. Some of them probably didn’t know any of the other songs that I was singing, because it was a festival crowd. But it was such a shocking moment, [because] it was never something that I was shooting for. Never.”
The image of 15,000 people singing along to a quiet, fragile love song is perhaps the perfect summary of Isbell’s career. Routinely praised as one of the best songwriters in America, he has won four Grammys and proven that polished, deeply affecting songcraft can sustain a robust career. Last May he put out “Reunions,” the fourth in a series of excellent albums, and recently announced the upcoming release of “Georgia Blue,” an album of covers of Georgia-born songs that he’d promised to record if Joe Biden won the state in the presidential election. He recently wrapped up filming his role in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Isbell and the 400 Unit play the Boch Center Wang Theatre on Saturday. I spoke to him by phone from his home near Nashville about the pandemic, “Reunions,” and what the best songs can do.
Q. What’s it like to be on tour now?
A. It’s different. The audiences have been really great. That’s been my favorite part of the whole deal, the fact that everybody on our tour seems to be really excited to be out working, and the audiences seem to be really excited to be seeing live music. Shows on a Monday or Tuesday night feel like they’re on a Saturday, which is fantastic.
That being said, it’s not 100 percent safe to do anything right now. So there is some worry, and we’re testing every couple days and doing our best to stay safe. And just on a traveling level, there’s a lot of things that we were used to — room service and enough towels and roads that were recently resurfaced — that aren’t the same anymore, because there’s not a lot of people out there working. But it’s something that we’re extremely grateful to be able to do. I don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure.
Q. What was the lockdown like for you, on a personal level?
A. It was a difficult time because we lost a lot of people that we cared about, either to the virus or to things that I think were directly related to the virus. It’s easy to lose your mind when you’re locked in the house for a year, even for us, and we had it made compared to most folks. There were a lot of things we didn’t have to worry about, and it was still difficult at times for everybody to keep their head above water, psychologically. But we did a lot of therapy, and a lot of proactive measures to try to keep ourselves sane.
And I played a lot of music. I spent hours and hours almost every day, just sitting on the floor playing guitar. That’s what I did when I was 14, 15 and in a different sort of lockdown where I was just sort of on my own most of the time. I don’t want to say I regressed to that but I definitely returned to that.
Q. You took a fair amount of criticism when you announced a vaccine requirement for your shows. Since then, more and more artists and venues have followed suit. Do you feel vindicated?
A. Well, I wouldn’t say vindicated, because I was sure that we were right from the start. The only thing that I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, is whether or not we should be playing shows at all. But I’m tired of waiting on people who don’t want to get the vaccine. I think we’ve all been waiting on them long enough. So we’re going to go out and play. And if we’ve decided that we’re going to go out and play, then how can we do it as safely as possible? And this is the only way.
So I don’t feel vindicated, exactly, but I’m grateful because I do think that provides us a path to keep working, and I don’t say that for financial reasons. I don’t know that live music is essential for everybody in the audience — it’s not health care and it’s not food. But it’s essential for me.
Q. You released “Reunions” during the pandemic, which is a wonderful record. But I gather it was a hard record for you to write and record.
A. Well, I think they’re supposed to get more difficult as you go along. Because if not, then you’re just falling back on what you know you’re good at. So I tried to push myself. And I felt a lot of pressure with that, because I made three really good records in a row. And now you gotta go make another one, and that’s [expletive] hard. So the writing of the record was more challenging because that’s really the only way that you advance creatively.
As a songwriter, I feel like I’m attempting to get more and more subtle as time passes. I’m trying to cut away more fat as I go. I’m trying to write things that don’t sound poignant until you really dig into ‘em. And that’s a hard trick to pull because to do that, you have to get really deep into the editing process, and you have to work on making lyrics more and more conversational, and simpler, simpler, simpler.
That’s what I’m doing. I want to get to a point where the song sounds like I accidentally heard it at the gas station — out of somebody’s mouth, not on the stereo. And then, 10 minutes later, after you heard the song, I want you to go, oh, wait a minute, there’s no way somebody just said that.
Q. What was it like to act in a Scorsese movie?
A. It was the best kind of terrifying. I had to go through a long audition process and it was a lot of work that I’m not used to doing. I got out there to Oklahoma and, you know, there’s Scorsese and [Robert] De Niro and [Leonardo] DiCaprio and all these brilliant actors and filmmakers and set designers.
I felt alive and I felt like I was doing something new. That was scary, but not like jumping out of an airplane scary. And I really enjoyed it. I don’t see how the movie will be anything other than great.
Q. How do you know when you’ve written a great song? Not just good enough to go on a record, which I assume is hard enough, but one that just is on a different level?
A. They’re hard to sing, to be honest with you. Usually if I write a song and I like it I’ll go play it for Amanda [Shires, a singer/songwriter and Isbell’s wife] first. And if I have to stop because I’m getting emotional, then it’s probably a really good song.
One of the things I noticed on the movie set about real actors is that when they have to cry on command, they’re not acting. And the way they do that is so emotionally intense because they have to keep all their worst memories, all their worst fears, right next to ‘em at all times when they’re on set, especially on days when they know that they have an intense scene to shoot. And so they’d have to be wide open to that and be able to just open that door immediately.
And I think sometimes when a song is its best, it puts you in the nearest proximity to those times when you’ve been moved, whether that’s positive or negative. I think whatever gets you closer to those emotionally impactful times in your life, you can tell that’s a good story or that’s a good song. So if I’m halfway through writing one, and I think, man I’m feeling a lot of things right now, I’m going to a lot of places in my past, then it’s probably pretty special compared to the rest of them.
Interview was edited and condensed.
JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT
At Boch Center Wang Theatre, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets $39.50-$79.50. www.bochcenter.org