In describing the real-life sagas behind Jason Isbell's recent album, Something More Than Free, one word keeps cropping up.
Loads of reviews have appropriated it to describe the narratives abounding on the record — some country and Americana in their roots-driven accessibility, others more folk-leaning in their storytelling detail. In conversation ahead of his opening set performance for The Avett Brothers on Thursday night at Rupp Arena, Isbell himself uses the term. But he employs it to assert not only the songwriting intent on Something More Than Free but his sense of purpose in performing that music onstage, even if that stage sits in the middle of a 23,000-seat venue like Rupp.
The word is deliberate.
"We use a maximum amount of dynamics, whether we're playing a theater or an arena or an amphitheater or whatever," Isbell says. "We just go out and play the best that we can.
"When I started out performing, 15 years ago or so, it took some getting used to because we were playing a lot of bars and clubs and things like that. When we moved into bigger venues, we definitely had to be more deliberate about the way we performed and the way we played and sang. But as time goes on, we've gotten more used to that. I've discovered that approach works in the smaller places, too."
It also works pretty well in his songs, such as the ones on 2013's Southeastern, which earned Isbell honors for artist, album and song of the year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards. The record chronicled, among other personal topics, a life renewed by sobriety after years of alcohol-induced turmoil. Something More Than Free is comparatively lighter, even though its combustible stories of hope and family (led by The Life You Choose, If It Takes a Lifetime and the exquisite "pipe bomb ready to blow" meditation 24 Frames) are hardly portraits of sleek contentment.
"I just sit down to write a good set of songs to document where my life was at that point and then spend a lot of time editing it," he says. "I try to get every word as close to perfect as I possibly can. That's been my approach every time. Now, I think a big shift happened before writing Southeastern. I got sober and had a lot more time in the day to do my work. That made a big difference, but that was the last real change in my approach. After that, I think it's more about ignoring what you've done in the past and just putting the time in to do the best work you can."
These days, Isbell's inspirations are considerably sunnier than some of the spirits that roam on his previous two albums. He and fellow Americana songsmith Amanda Shires had daughter Mercy Rose Isbell on Sept. 1. ("I've been holding her in my lap here for the last five minutes or so. Her mom just came in and grabbed her.") As bright as his world is this fall, father Isbell asserts that representing life on personal terms through song is a process as difficult as it is unavoidable.
"I don't know how to gauge that, really, because I feel like it's my job as much as anything else," he says. "That's the root of the work that I'm doing. It's not an easy thing to do, and sometimes you just feel very bare and exposed. You have to focus on getting away from your own image of yourself and protecting how you want to appear to your audience. You have to stop protecting that and just start telling the truth.
"The best songs are the most honest songs. They are definitely the ones that have connected with the largest number of fans, too. The ones that are really important to me from a personal standpoint are the ones that translate the best. So I just try to keep challenging myself to open up to people.
"That can be as simple as forming relationships with people and not being so locked up inside yourself. You tell people the truth and everything will wind up being a lot easier."