What does it take to write a good song? Some folks think inspiration flies past you like a bird; you just have to wait for it to come by. The people who think that tend to sit around a lot and write very little. A good song is hard work; you have to put in the hours fishing for the right lyric and playing every variation of the melody. To Jason Isbell, “That’s the job.”
There is something romantic to the idea of a muse–a perfect inspiration that causes you to produce timeless works of art. Isbell may even describe his wife and daughter that way. But that’s a passive approach to songwriting. You can have the best tools, the best ideas, and the greatest intentions, but if you are unable to use the tools no amount of inspiration will cause you to create a masterpiece. No muse can take the place of hard work.
Take his song “If We Were Vampires“, for example. Isbell didn’t think up that song while in bed with his wife. He sat down and tried to deconstruct the idea of a “list song”, the kind of country standards that list out everything the singer loves about the person being sung to. That exercise led him to the realization that what makes love worth fighting for is it’s brevity. “We would never be motivated to have relationships or have the courage to tell somebody how we feel if we were going to live forever,” he said. That idea, coupled with becoming a father changed the way Isbell approached music, giving his new album vulnerable honesty and sense of urgency.
He was able to turn that realization into “Nashville Sound”, an album already appearing on “Album of the Year” lists, because his tools were sharp and he had put in the years work required to produce quality work. “Nashville Sound” did not come out of thin air. It was the perspiration that broth the inspiration to life.