Country Star Jason Isbell: Life Is Better Sober

By Kelly Burch 09/08/17

With the support of his wife, the country artist has been able to maintain his sobriety and create some of his best work to date.

Jason Isbell and wife Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell and wife Amanda Shires

Singer Jason Isbell used to perform with a bottle of Jack Daniels on stage with him. Now the artist who was recently nominated for Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards for The Nashville Sound says his life—and his performances—are better because of his sobriety. 

"It's made a huge difference," Isbell told Inforum. "I have more time and more focus, and I have better relationships with people. It's the best thing I ever did for myself, that's for sure. It made me a much happier person. It made me feel better. I enjoy my life a lot more. It gave me so many more hours in the day to edit and revise and try to get every song on an album to be as solid as the best one or two I used to have on records. It's just made everything stronger for me.”

Five years ago, Amanda Shires, who is now Isbell’s wife, urged him to get help for his drinking and substance use. Isbell told NPR in 2013 about Shires's no-nonsense approach to getting him help. "I would usually drunkenly tell her that I needed to go to rehab. I only got to do that twice, I think. The second time she said, 'You're telling the wrong person,'" he said. "Yeah, that was it."

And she let him know that she intended to hold him at his word. Shires set a plan in motion to get him into rehab, and he has been sober ever since. Even after five years of sobriety, Shires still helps keep him on track with his recovery and professionally, he said. 

"What I get out of it career-wise and as a relationship is a really solid barometer for whether or not I'm doing my best work," he said. "She has no problem telling me I can do better when I'm writing a song. I think it's really easy when you have a little bit of success as a songwriter or any creative person to have people tell you that you're great and that really doesn't serve your work.”

Isbell’s career has spanned different genres of music. He played with Drive-by Truckers from 2001 to 2007, and has since recorded with the band The 400 Unit.

Isbell, who is currently touring with The 400 Unit, says that he has become accustomed to performing and touring sober. "I don't miss drinking at this point. There was a while when I did. It took some getting used to," he said. "I'm sure those feelings will come back at some point because they don't ever completely go away.”

If they do come back, Isbell is likely to be open about it. Although he doesn’t particularly like sharing his personal story he feels that it is something he must do. 

"I feel if you're not challenging yourself to tell people more than you're comfortable with, you're not really doing your job," he said. "I just try to communicate honestly with people honestly all of the time, whether I am face to face with somebody, on Twitter or writing a song. I don't hold anything back for one format or the other.” 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.