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Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires wonder if the CMA ‘knows anything about country music’

Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell
Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell perform in Nashville in 2018.
(Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Jason Isbell says he never asked to join the Country Music Assn.

Instead, Nashville’s most prestigious trade group simply bestowed lifetime membership on the acclaimed singer and songwriter when he earned a nomination for album of the year in 2017 with “The Nashville Sound.”

“It was kind of like: ‘Congratulations, we’re married!’” he recalled with a laugh 36 hours after the CMA presented its annual awards show on Wednesday night.

Now the marriage is over: In a tweet that quickly went viral, Isbell, 41, announced Thursday that he and his wife, musician Amanda Shires, 38 (who’s a member of the Highwomen supergroup with Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby), had “decided to return our membership cards” because the CMA Awards, as was widely noted online, hadn’t mentioned the recent deaths of John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver — three highly influential singer-songwriters whom Isbell referred to as “our heroes.” (The production, which typically recognizes Nashville figures who’ve died in a given year, did memorialize Charlie Daniels, Kenny Rogers, Mac Davis and Joe Diffie.)

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Yet outrage over the Prine slight was far from the only criticism of the CMAs show, which was also condemned for gathering country stars, nearly all mask-free, in an indoor environment as COVID-19 case numbers surge around the country.

To hear their thoughts on the CMA and why they left, I spoke to Isbell and Shires from their home outside Nashville on Friday. These are excerpts from our conversation.

Luke Combs and Maren Morris were big winners, with Morris’ shout-out to Black female country artists a high point. But a lack of COVID awareness marred the night.

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You almost seemed to take the CMAs not honoring Prine personally.

Jason Isbell: We were really, really close to John. And Amanda worked with Billy Joe Shaver during her whole career.

Amanda Shires: He’s the person who told me I should be a songwriter.

Isbell: But beyond that, the issue for me is that the artists the Country Music Assn. looks to as quote-unquote credible artists — artists I have a lot of respect for, like Chris Stapleton or Ashley McBryde or Eric Church — those people were directly influenced by the work of Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine.

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Shires: It makes me wonder who’s in charge and if they even know anything about country music.

Why do you think the CMA left them out?

Isbell: I think it had to be intentional. You could tell if you looked back at the press release they put out last week that they wanted the show to be a drama-free piece of entertainment — you could tell they were gearing the show toward the positive and staying away from anything they felt might be risky.

Shires: Death isn’t drama. We’re all going there. What the f—?

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Isbell: There have been other reasons in the past to kick up a fuss about things the CMA has done — they haven’t done a good job of progressing with the times and advocating for women in country music and for Black women in country music especially. But this was kind of the final straw for us.

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Did you talk about it afterward with friends?

Isbell: I heard from Sturgill [Simpson]. He wanted to do his own show where we just rent out the Ryman and all of us get together and play a Connect Four tournament and give awards away. I also heard from Barry Walsh, who played piano for Waylon [Jennings] for over a decade. He said Waylon would definitely be on our side with this.

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The CMA show did pay tribute to Joe Diffie, who like Prine died of COVID.

Isbell: But they didn’t say that he died of COVID. They didn’t mention that was what killed him.

Nobody onstage said anything about masks either. Why do you think the show went out of its way not to mention the pandemic?

Isbell: Everybody knows the answer to that question. What the Country Music Assn. pictures as the majority of their listeners are people who are on the side of the political aisle that doesn’t want to hear about COVID and tries to pretend that it’s not real. They want to stay away from offending those people, and it’s causing the whole system to become a laughingstock to every other type of music in the world.

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Shires: They’re being poor examples, where you could be a good role model for people in rural areas through TV. Major misstep.

Isbell: They had a huge opportunity to actually do something that would help their listeners’ health by taking this seriously and discussing it in a serious way and giving examples of how their favorite country stars were being safe and not denying the fact that the virus is real. And they missed that opportunity because they were afraid to lose revenue.

Shires: If you hear artists talking about something as simple as wearing a mask —

Isbell: It could mean a lot. People could actually listen and say, “Hell, my favorite country singer’s wearing a mask. He can’t be all that bad. He knows what’s in my deepest country heart.”

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Do you see people taking masks seriously around Nashville?

Isbell: The short answer is no. It’s just political here. We’ve got people protesting their right to kill old people. It’s not a good scene, and it speaks to the fact that we can’t even agree on the simplest truths right now. And I’m not one of these unity people who thinks the worst thing that could happen is we don’t remain unified as a country. I think the worst thing that could happen is we all become unified behind bad science. I would rather us remain divided until we collapse than have to agree with people who say this virus is not real. Because it’s killed my friends.

Does COVID’s politicization feel like a new low in America?

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Isbell: I’m surprised by it, then I’m mad at myself for being surprised by it. I should’ve known better in hindsight. We’ve just got some people in high political office who’ve figured out how to make more power happen by educating people less. And everything is on the table for those bastards now — they’ll politicize anything.

Has the CMA reached out since you tweeted?

Isbell: I don’t think they’re too concerned. It’s not like we were out there playing their kind of country music anyway.

Any professional repercussions you can envision?

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Isbell: I haven’t really thought of anything they could do to me. They can’t make people stop buying our records — they’re already getting them for free.

Shires: I can guess what it might do to the Highwomen. But at the same time, that whole concept was based on those heroes that the show ignored.

Isbell: Waylon was in the Highwaymen, and Waylon was Waylon in part because of Billy Joe Shaver.

The Highwomen was sort of an insider-outsider operation.

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Shires: I tried with the Highwomen to respect music and different genres. And to try to bridge a gap. But at this point —

Isbell: The system needs to be recalibrated. I don’t have any problem with country music sounding like pop music. If your big complaint is that country music doesn’t sound like it used to, then you’re being ignorant of a lot of different things. Some people grow up without access to acoustic guitars and fiddles and banjos, and those people shouldn’t be taken out of the equation. You should be able to make country music with a drum machine or a laptop. But I take issue with the refusal to acknowledge the forebears who gave credibility to the genre in the first place.


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