As he heads into the final stretch of a year that put him at the forefront of the vaccine debate and several other controversies, Jason Isbell only has one regret about the way he heavy-handedly handled 2021's COVID problem.
"I spent too much time arguing about something that shouldn't have been an argument in the first place," the Alabama-reared country-rocker said.
Five months after he and his workhorse band the 400 Unit played their first shows of summer — all requiring proof of vaccine or negative COVID tests to attend — Isbell is still on the road and headed Wednesday to the Armory in Minneapolis. In the interim, he made a lot of headlines for his rigid policies, and several other hot topics, too.
Still, it's hard to argue with the results. Isbell proudly pointed them out in an interview the week before Thanksgiving from his home outside Nashville.
"We were still able to go out and play a lot of shows," he said, "and we saw only a very small drop in attendance, which might've happened anyway. And honestly, the people who did show up made up for it at the merch table because they were excited to be there."
"I can't say we still provided a 100% safe environment for everybody, but it felt better than doing nothing."
No one could accuse Isbell of doing nothing when it comes to the causes and controversies of the day.
When fast-rising country music star Morgan Wallen — who covered Isbell's "Cover Me Up" on his latest album — was caught on tape drunkenly spewing racial epithets, Isbell condemned Wallen's actions and pledged to donate all his royalty money from Wallen's album to the NAACP.
When the 2020 election proved nail-bitingly close in Georgia, Isbell promised that a winning turnout of blue voters would prompt him to make an album of cover songs from the Peach State (where his former band, the Drive-by Truckers, formed).
Which brings us to Isbell and the 400 Unit's latest release, "Georgia Blue." The follow-up to their Grammy-nominated 2020 record "Reunions," the new charity album features remade songs from R.E.M., Otis Redding, James Brown, the Black Crowes, Indigo Girls, Cat Power, Drivin' n' Cryin', Vic Chesnutt and more. Vocal duties are shared by Isbell's wife and violinist Amanda Shires (a renowned singer/songwriter on her own) and guests such as Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker.
Surprisingly, those aren't the only cover songs Isbell and the band prominently put out in 2021. Their version of "Sad But True" from Metallica's expanded "Black Album" has become a minor radio hit. He also covered his late friend and hero John Prine's "Souvenirs" for a new tribute album.
Most surprising of all: Isbell spent part of the year making a movie with Martin Scorsese. Both he and fellow Americana music star Sturgill Simpson were cast opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Jesse Plemons in the iconic director's adaptation of the 1920s-era Oklahoma saga "Killers of the Flower Moon."
"I think they mainly wanted us for our accents," the novice actor quipped, "but I'll take it."
Here's more of what Isbell had to say as he wraps up perhaps the wildest year of his 20-plus-year career.
On covering Metallica: "I didn't want to go into it and pretend we're a metal band. We probably could pull it off, but I don't think that'd add anything to the collection. So we tried to do something different, knowing it might be polarizing to some people, and it has been. But then we just found out it's also the No. 1 song in Amarillo at the moment."
On covering Prine for "Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, Vol. 2": "That was hard. Really hard. It's hard for me to get through any of John's songs right now. The wounds are still open and the memories still strong. But they're so beautiful. That one in particular, I saw John sing it at a funeral years ago for somebody his family was close to, and I thought, 'How does he do it?' Because he didn't choke up. So I thought if he could do it, then so could I."
On making "Georgia Blue": "It was a different challenge for us in that it took out the part where we had to do a bunch of homework before going into the studio. We just kind of showed up and started recording. We already knew the songs were great, so that pressure was gone. It was like driving a really nice rental car: The songs don't belong to you, so you just have fun and try not to [muck] it up too bad."
On donating his royalties from Wallen's record, which still sold well even after the singer's racist tirade was revealed: "I think what Morgan said was a lot worse than what the Dixie Chicks said, or what Chely Wright said when she came out as gay. Country music has a history of really turning its back on people over certain things, and then welcoming other people back in with open arms.
"It's true he is just a kid, and he was drunk. I don't think that's enough to make you say the things he said, though. I think the problem is the way he was raised, and I think that's the problem with a lot of country music: They have one very particular story that the business is trying to sell, and that narrative is the white male American story. I think it would serve the genre well to try to allow in and pay service to other stories. I think there are a lot of people who are more deserving of that kind of platform than Morgan is."
On whether he has regrets about his prolific and sometimes provocative Twitter account: "Nah, the only regrets I've had on Twitter were before I got sober. I don't go after people unless they're notable figures or politicians. If somebody else comes to my page and disagrees with me, if they do it in a way that's civilized, then I will disagree back in the same manner. But if somebody comes in hot, I'm not going to apologize for the intensity of my counterpunch."
On the oft-heard complaint that he is "losing half his audience" for his strong stance on vaccines and other politicized issues: "I haven't noticed we've taken any kind of hit, honestly. Every time somebody gets mad and throws our records in the trash, I think there's somebody else who says, 'Oh, maybe I'll check this guy out because of this.' And I certainly don't feel like our audience is divided down the middle. It might be half if I was Jimmy Buffett and had this huge, broad audience. But I think a lot of my audience is close to where I am ideologically anyway."
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
With: Strand of Oaks.
When: 8 p.m. Wed.
Where: The Armory, 500 S. 6th St., Mpls.
Tickets: $47, ticketmaster.com