Jason Isbell Biography
Isbell was born in Green Hill, Alabama, two miles from the Alabama/Tennessee state line, the son of interior designer mother, Angela Hill Barnett, and house painter, Mike Isbell.
Isbell's parents divorced, and he has half-siblings, Chantry Barnett and Emily Isbell, who are much younger than he.
Isbell grew up in rural North Alabama, a childhood where he said his family had cows in the backyard. While being taken care of by his grandparents (while his parents worked), who had horses and sheep as well as chickens, ducks and geese on their farm, Isbell learned how to care for (and kill) fowl—an easy job for a kid—at an early age of 6 or 7 years old. His grandparents lived right down the street, next to the school that Isbell attended.
Almost all of Isbell's family, except his parents, were musicians, and his father was an avid music listener. On his family and music: "Grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, and cousins, we all played music together once or twice a week," he recalls. "The music that I make and the way I make it has a lot to do with where I came from. I might have also made good music if I was from a different part of the country or a different part of the world, but I'm really happy to be from there, I think I'm a lucky person to be from there."
Isbell's paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and played guitar in church. His grandfather had 7 or 8 brothers, and most of them played instruments either professionally or recreationally.
Because his father was Pentecostal, he went to the Pentecostal church with his grandparents, but said that when his parents got a divorce, his mother's family attended Church of Christ, which Isbell describes as being very strict. Musical instruments were not allowed, only "human voices." Isbell said he switched back and forth between the two churches.
Isbell said his last name is originally Spanish.
Isbell spent a lot of time as a child being taken care of by his grandfather, who along with his uncle, took the time to teach young Isbell how to play multiple instruments. Isbell jokes that "I grew up playing music with my family as a form of child care." Isbell said he first learned how to play the mandolin when he was 6 years old, since he was so young he could play the smaller sized instrument better. The music was mostly gospel, bluegrass, and the humor performers from Grand Ole Opry.
He started playing in a garage band and a country cover band (Keith Whitley, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson) when he was 14, 15 years old with his good friend, songwriter Chris Tompkins. They even played at Grand Ole Opry when he was 16. In high school Isbell played trumpet and French horn.
Isbell attended University of Memphis, studying English and Creative Writing. Isbell was in a fraternity there, but did not graduate - he is short one class: "Human Fitness and Wellness."