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Music

From feral hogs to Ben Shapiro, how Americana star Jason Isbell keeps winning Twitter

Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville
Jason Isbell, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2017, is a Grammy-winning musician and a sharp wit on Twitter.
(Christopher Berkey / For The Times)

Jason Isbell: Grammy-winning Americana singer-songwriter, voice of his generation and ... feral hogs whisperer?

Well, no, not quite. But if you spent any time scrolling through social media this week, there was no avoiding the “30-50 feral hogs” meme that quickly swept the Internet, a sensation that can be traced back to a very serious debate originating on Isbell’s Twitter feed, in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

“If you’re on here arguing the definition of ‘assault weapon’ today you are part of the problem,” Isbell, 40, tweeted. “You know what an assault weapon is, and you know you don’t need one.”

This spurred user William McNabb to reply, “legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”

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Isbell — and countless others — quickly replied, both with scores of “feral hog” jokes and memes, as well as legitimate arguments that pointed out fences are a lot easier to build than it is to keep assault rifles out of schools.

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This wasn’t the first time that Isbell has used Twitter for both humor and a platform for change, whether schooling conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, pointing out gender imbalances on Pandora’s playlists or tweeting support for Kacey Musgraves after “Fox & Friends” chastised her for speaking out after this weekend’s shootings. His tweets are not only potent and smart, but often funny as hell too.

So what better way to have a discussion about using Twitter for good — and knowing when to let go — than by sliding into Isbell’s DMs. We did just that ... and learned a lot about fighting trolls and embracing hogs along the way.

Thinking about your Twitter notifications gives me anxiety. Please tell me you don’t have push alerts enabled?
Oh no, no push notices on anything for me. Maybe Postmates, but that’s it. That’s the beauty of Twitter though. You don’t have to look at the replies. The hard part is being OK with not looking. Not that I ignore them all, but I know my limits.

Writing music can be a pretty serious act. Does indulging in the sillier, funny aspects of Twitter help balance that out? To maybe show a different side to those who haven’t seen you live yet?
Honestly, I wish I could get more of my humor into my songs, but that’s an ongoing effort. Certainly something I haven’t mastered. Twitter works well for me, since I’m a smartass by nature.

How much time would you say you spend on Twitter?
I spend maybe 30-45 minutes a day on Twitter. Seems like I’m on there a lot, but it only takes a few seconds to say something funny. Or something that can completely ruin your life.

It’s easy to dismiss the power of Twitter. But if it’s the primary means that our president uses to communicate, don’t we owe it to ourselves to not underestimate it?
Twitter is a very powerful tool. Honestly I think we’re all still underestimating it. There’s no easy way to discern truth from fiction there, and lack of context is not just incidental — it’s a huge part of why Twitter is so successful. Con artists thrive on lack of context. But so do comedians.

I am sure somewhere out there is a tweet that says “Jason Isbell believes hogs should eat children.
Yep. And there are hundreds if not thousands of people making hog jokes this week without knowing why. I saw quite a few “feral hog jokes are taking my mind off of all the sadness in the world” tweets yesterday. The sadness was the whole reason for the hog talk in the first place! This is like a TV show on an RFD network: “Hog Talk.”

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I saw those tweets too. Feral hogs are relieving us from the desolation of the world! It’s very real, though. It feels good to lose yourself.
The hard part is figuring out what is an escape and what is more bad news. I think there are people out there who feel some type of endorphin rush when their beliefs are validated on a social network, even if their primary belief is that the world is shit and we are all going to hell. That’s a dangerous rabbit hole. “I believe everything is awful and it makes me feel better to know I’m right, so I seek out things that tell me everything is awful.”

In country music, though, it feels particularly important to lead conversations around gun control, racial equality, immigration. If there is a small chance, even, that you and Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile and Kacey Musgraves and the Brothers Osborne can change some minds or influence policy, that seems powerful.
Maybe artists in our circle have a better chance of preaching to somebody who isn’t already in the choir, so to speak. I really hope that’s the case, but who knows? Either way, part of an artist’s job is to speak up. Whether it’s in our work or on social media or in an interview, one of the things that separates artists from entertainers is the compulsion to make honest statements, especially when it’s scary to do so. And there’s a reason for the term “con artist.” The gift of an artist is the same gift that allows people like Ben Shapiro to trick Americans into making him famous, but I like to think we use that gift to unify rather than divide. The best of us can use a joke or a rhyme or a melody to spread a real message in a way that doesn’t immediately turn the listener off. It’s like we get a few extra seconds to speak because the audience doesn’t realize what we’re saying until they’ve already heard the message. This is why I’m really happy about the feral hog thing becoming so popular. It shows how ridiculous most of these “war weapons for sport and home defense” arguments really are.

Absolutely. Having “tiny chance of front yard consumption by hogs” > “very real chance of being murdered in a mass shooting” as your scale really shows how absurd the argument is. And you’ve been around the world a few times now, and you’re from Alabama. Maybe you’ve seen a hog or two.
I’ve seen a damn hog in my time. And yes they’re scary, but I’d much rather face a few dozen wild hogs than a freaked-out dad with an AR-15.

It’s also important to note how you’ve often spoken out on behalf of gender equality — calling out Pandora and country radio on their playlists [Isbell is a member of the backing band for the Highwomen, the supergroup featuring his wife, Amanda Shires, Carlile, Morris and Natalie Hemby]. These are “risky” moves, but also powerful ones. They pay attention when it comes from you.
I just call them like I see them, but I wish everybody would do the same. It’s like we’re all attacking the feral hog one at a time instead of in a group. Or an action movie where the bad guys all go after the good guy individually so he’s able to fight them off. Except with feral hogs. And the hogs represent the enemies of social justice. Why don’t we all just attack the hog at once and get it over with?


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