MOORHEAD-It's been five years since Jason Isbell played Fargo-Moorhead. When he plays Bluestem Amphitheater tonight, he'll show just how productive those five years have been.
When the singer-guitarist played the Aquarium in 2012, he was seen by fans as a gifted storyteller for his first three solo albums and three discs rior with Drive-by Truckers from 2001 to '07. His set with his band the 400 Unit didn't disappoint, but he seemed withdrawn on stage.
What fans didn't know then was that Isbell had recently quit drinking and after often playing with a bottle of Jack Daniels onstage, was getting used to performing sober.
"It's made a huge difference," Isbell says of his sobriety. "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."
Still, he knows each day of sobriety is another step and that there's a chance he may take a step backwards.
"I don't miss drinking at this point. There was a while when I did. It took some getting used to," he says from a tour stop in Akron. "I'm sure those feelings will come back at some point because they don't ever completely go away."
He's lost interest in drinking with help from his wife, musician Amanda Shires, who prompted him to go into treatment five years ago and married him later that year. She's since joined The 400 Unit, when she's not off on her own tour.
"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 says of his time with Shire. "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 has had more than just a little success. Over the last decade he has released six studio albums with each getting more critical acclaim than the last. His previous album, 2015's "Something More than Free" earned him two Grammy Awards. His latest mix of rock and country, "The Nashville Sound," looks like it could repeat that accomplishment.
"The Nashville Sound" may not necessarily be as advertised - it's not the slick, radio ready bro-country music Nashville has become associated with. Instead, Isbell sings about getting older and while still looking back, also looking forward, now with a 2-year-old daughter.
He has no problems opening up, not because he wants to, but rather because he feels like he should.
"I feel if you're not challenging yourself to to tell people more than you're comfortable with, you're not really doing your job," he says.
On "Nashville" he wonders about the world he's leaving for his daughter, in particular during a time of social unease.
"That's not easy to do, because it's a minefield," he says, about addressing issues like race in "White Man's World." "If you make a misstep, it's very easy to say something other than what you feel in a song. But it's not supposed to be easy. Nobody ever just cruised along and made great albums."
While he's done just that-cruised along making great albums-he's also not been shy to speak his mind. He's frequently taken to Twitter and Facebook to promote other artists, or share his own views. On Friday he responded to those who think artists shouldn't use their platform to share socio-political views.
"I'll 'shut up and stick to the music' when (Mike) Huckabee stops trying to play the damn bass," Isbell tweeted.
"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," Isbell says, when asked about his use of social media. "It's a good way to pass the time, because I travel a lot. More importantly, it's a good way to join in cultural and social conversations. I like that you can use that to show support for the people and things you believe in and condemn things that are fear-based and hate-based. I think social media has done a lot to move conversations forward as far as race and gender and I'm happy to participate in that. I enjoy it. It helps me sleep better at night."
If You Go
What: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, with Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Bluestem Amphitheater, 801 50th Ave., S., Moorhead.
Info: Tickets range from $25 to $56, plus fees. jadepresents.com, (866) 300-8300.