Jason Isbell Shares His Sobering Truths

Country music isn’t nearly as boozy as it once was. More and more artists are getting sober, keeping their tours dry, and trying to stay on a healthy path. Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, JoDee Messina, Brantley Gilbert and more have been open about their struggles with addiction over the years. But nobody’s been quite as candid as Jason Isbell.

In a new story in the February issue of GQ.com, Isbell and other singer-songwriters shared their stories about the climb back up after hitting rock bottom.

And it sounds like music is what pulled Isbell out.

“I wrote my way through it. I think part of the process for me of sobering up, and I don’t know that I’ve ever put it this way before or really thought about it this way before, was using my work to connect with the world that I had always felt so isolated from. And I think probably my survival instinct kicked in and said, ’Well, what you do is you use these songs to connect with people in a way that you’ve not connected with them before.’ And after that, I sort of felt like I belonged in the world,” Isbell told the magazine. He also credits his wife as being the catalyst for change. “I was trying to establish a long-term relationship with her, and it became pretty clear to me that she wasn’t going to be in a long-term relationship with a drunk.

“So that was my first real motivation to get sober. I don’t think I would have done it — I certainly wouldn’t have done it at that point — if it hadn’t been for her. I had told her once before, when she and I weren’t too far along, that I think I need to quit drinking and I didn’t think I could do it on my own, because I tried before and not had any luck. And I said, ’I think I’m gonna need help doing this, go to rehab or something like that, because I don’t know how to do it on my own.’ She said, ’If you still feel that way 24 hours from now, you’re going into rehab,’ and sure enough, the next day I told her the same thing. It was the middle of the night, and I was obviously really drunk. She called a bunch of people that were my friends and whose opinions I respected — it took a lot of courage and care on her part — and figured out how to get me into rehab.”

Isbell’s next stop was the Cumberland Heights Recovery Center in Nashville. He said he was mostly just drinking, but that he did some drugs just to keep drinking. A little bit of cocaine or some painkillers to sober himself up so he could keep drinking. How much drinking? “I would say probably a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day.” He called the stay at Cumberland Heights painful, and much more difficult than losing a job. He recalls worrying about things like, “Am I going to be funny? Attractive? Interesting?” Eventually, he learned that he’d be even better than when he was drinking. “But the addiction in your brain, that’s a tricky son of a bitch. It had me convinced for a long time that I wasn’t going to enjoy my life, that nobody was going to enjoy being around me if I wasn’t raising hell all the time,” he said.

The path to sobriety also taught Isbell that he had to take these steps for himself, and not for anyone else. “After you start the first steps, and you start working your way towards being a more functional person, and a sober person, a clear-headed person, you start seeing the results, and then it becomes about you, it becomes something that you’re doing for yourself. Which I think is something that has to happen. If you’re just getting sober for somebody else, even if it’s someone you’re in love with, I don’t think it’ll last.”

And these days, Isbell is finally in a confident place. He no longer worries about relapsing.

“What used to be a craving for alcohol is now more of a romanticized memory. I let the tape play out, watch the movie until the end and see what it would really do and what would really happen, rather than just remember the buzz,” he admitted. “It was a major change, and it was terrifying, but the farther you get into the woods, the less scary the woods appear. And the more time I spent working on what had caused me to be a drunk in the first place, the less afraid I was of that particular ghost returning. And as time went on, it went from being a frightening experience to being an enlightening experience. So now I look back on it with nothing but fond memories, and I see it as sort of this beautiful renaissance in my life that made everything that’s happened possible. But, you know, at the time it was like losing a friend.

“I do miss certain things. But the minuses are a lot more than the pluses of ever going back to that life. If I were to relapse and stay that way, then I would miss everything about the life that I have now. Not just two or three moments that I probably remember very differently from how they actually happened.”

The happy ending to his story is that Isbell now has a real story to tell.

“The fact that I just dove headfirst into my work gave me an opportunity to actually document, in real time, the changes that I was going through. And luckily I had the technical ability as a songwriter to do that in a way that sort of let everybody in on what I was dealing with, the questions that I was trying to answer. And, you know, it made my career happen. It gave me everything, really, that I have now. The songs aren’t all about sobriety. Most of them aren’t at all about sobriety. But in a way, they are all about that. Because to get sober and stay that way, I think you have to understand what part that plays in your life. It’s all so very closely intertwined, that if I’m writing about driving to the grocery store, I’m writing about sobriety. If I’m writing about my relationship with my wife, I’m writing about sobriety. If I’m writing about something that happened in the 1860s in Texas, I’m writing about my sobriety.”

If he hadn’t done the work to get sober and stay sober, Isbell predicted what his life would look like now:

“I would probably have been a struggling songwriter and touring musician, and probably would have thought that my music was just going over everybody’s head. Or I was born too late: all these excuses that people give when your work is not quite strong enough or when they don’t work hard enough or aren’t able to focus,” he said. “And I would have just kept on drinking and kept on ruining relationships.

“I don’t think I would have my wife and my daughter, and I certainly wouldn’t have a big pile of Grammys and all that kind of shit.”

In a tweet on Tuesday (Jan. 15), Isbell shared simply that he was proud to be part of the story.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.