When Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage in Austin, Texas, on August 9th, it was just a few hours after he had announced a new set of Covid protocols for all of his upcoming concerts: Isbell’s live shows would now require all attendees to provide either proof of Covid vaccination or a negative test prior to entry. It was a decision bound to draw strong reactions, and while many praised Isbell’s move toward concert safety, some fans, fellow artists, and venues were unhappy. A show scheduled for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Houston was canceled after the amphitheater wouldn’t comply with Isbell’s new rules (they say timing was the issue and that they presented Isbell with other options). Another gig set for Friday in Fort Worth was moved to a different venue in the city.
But Isbell tells Rolling Stone he knew his policy was sound when he saw the mostly masked faces of the vaccinated (or negative-testing) audience at ACL Live at the Moody Theater on Monday.
“As soon as we walked onstage,” he says, “we could tell that the audience was full-on excited. They felt more comfortable and they had a better time. It was one of the best shows that I’ve played, because the energy in the room was so good. That, to me, was evidence that we had made the right decision.”
We talked to Isbell about his new mandate, vaccine hesitancy, and why people should learn to get comfortable saying “I’m afraid.”
So what happened in Houston? The venue is saying there wasn’t enough time to implement your Covid policy.
They were unwilling to implement what we had requested. And it’s not the kind of thing we’re going to compromise. The compromise is the negative test. That’s for people who can’t get the vaccine, and also for people who just won’t get the vaccine. As long as they can show up with a 72-hour negative test, we’ll let them in. And in my mind, that’s not everything that we could do. We could cancel all the shows and go home. But we made this decision, and we’re going to stick by it. We’re not going to compromise any farther beyond the negative test. I think anything other than that would be extremely irresponsible on our part.
As for the idea that they didn’t have enough time to implement it, how long has Covid been around? How long have these venues known that this kind of thing was going to happen? What did they think was going to happen when the vaccines rolled out? You know, I started to trademark the name “The Antibody Bar” about a year ago, because I thought, “Man, one day we’re going to need a bar where people who have viral antibodies can come and hang out.” I even emailed my lawyer and he said, “Yes, we can do that.” But I thought, you know what, that would be taking advantage of a bad situation, so I didn’t do it. But that goes to show you that we knew this was coming. People had plenty of time to prepare. So that excuse, I think, looks pretty hollow to anybody.
You were supposed to play Panther Island Pavilion in Fort Worth this Friday, and the show was moved to another venue, Billy Bob’s. Why did that change?
Normally, what we’re looking at are venues that are large, outdoor venues that receive some funding from the state. Their fear is that, as [Texas Governor] Abbott has threatened, the state is going to withhold funding from the venues that allow artists to put Covid restrictions in place. I don’t think Billy Bob’s needs Texas’s money, because Billy Bob’s got Billy Bob’s money. So capitalism stepped up and said, “Hey, we’ll take the money.” I think of Billy Bob’s in Hank Williams, Jr.’s voice: “I’ll take your money. I’ll make your movies. I’ll tell you right now, I was born to boogie.” I think Billy Bob’s Texas was born to boogie. They don’t need Texas state funding, so they have no problem hosting the show there. I’m excited about it, because my bass player Jimbo told me the other day that his dad, who has since passed away, told him a long time ago, “Son, since you’re out there touring, one day you got to go to Billy Bob’s Texas. It is the greatest place on Earth.”
Why specifically are you drawing this line and refusing to play venues that won’t honor your vaccination or negative-test policy?
Because I don’t feel right onstage while I think people might be getting deathly ill in the crowd. I don’t think it’s fair to the audience or to the crews at the venues or to my crew to put people in a situation where they’re possibly risking their lives or taking the virus home to their kids, or they go to school and give it to other kids. It just didn’t feel right. I pride myself, and I have always prided myself, on being successful at a job where nobody gets hurt. I’m not an investment banker or a hedge fund manager. I don’t need anybody to fail for me to succeed. And I think if we hadn’t put these kinds of restrictions in place and we didn’t hold the line on it, I would feel like I was taking advantage of people while I’m doing my job. I don’t ever want to do that, because that little thing that I love the most about the job that I have is the fact that it spreads something positive. I want to protect that. I don’t want to spread positive tests — I want to spread positive vibes.
With some states banning vaccine requirements, how does your decision affect your tour routing, from a logistical standpoint?
Well, so far, Houston’s the only one that we’ve had issue with. I have a really good team of people around me who are able to respond and react real quickly, and I know this is going to put a burden on them, but that’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make in order to do the right thing. We’ve got some shows coming up in Alabama, and I know Governor Ivey has been a little bit more science-based in some of her Covid-related decisions than some of the other Republican governors in the southeastern states. So I’m hoping that, if we need to, we can get in touch with her and discuss that, because Lord knows, I love playing big shows in my home state. But what’s really going to help is if all the artists who are at the level where they can hold this line and make these restrictions and keep them in place — if all those artists do that, it’s going to be real hard for the states to turn that down, because they’re going to lose a lot of revenue and a lot of their constituents are going to get real upset. That’s what I’m hoping happens.
“I think everybody should do the right thing, regardless of what you think your fans are going to do about it.”
So why won’t some artists, especially in country music, do what you’re doing? Or encourage their fans to get the vaccine? Or even just wear a mask?
It’s easy for me because I’m not really a country artist. It’s easy for me to say, “I don’t care if I piss off country fans or not,” because I really don’t have a whole lot of them. Artists who are working their way up or don’t have a huge crowd and aren’t bringing in a whole lot of money, they’re in a different situation, and it’s not as easy for them. I think a lot of it is the way the country music industry was designed and has been run from the start — what you’re seeing is another problem created by the unwillingness of country music to push any narrative other than the suffering of a straight white man. That’s been going on for so long, and that is the story that they have decided they’re going to sell. They know that that story will make them X amount of revenue, and so they continue to sell that story over and over right down the line. This is another one of many, many problems that have been caused by their reluctance to promote any narrative other than that one.
I think everybody should do the right thing, regardless of what you think your fans are going to do about it. I’m not risking the same amount as somebody who’s a superstar and loves being a superstar might be risking, but that being said, the right thing is still the right thing, no matter what. And there’s a difference between right and wrong; there aren’t good people on both sides; and I don’t want us to all unify and come together under the banner of stupidity. I think we should do the right thing any time we get the opportunity, no matter who we are. And the right thing is to try to keep people safe and make some requirements at your shows.
You’re playing Bonnaroo this year, and the festival just announced its own vaccination or negative-test policy. How will your policy work if another festival doesn’t comply?
When I made this declaration, I didn’t know Bonnaroo was going to do it, and I was a little nervous because I sure do love playing Bonnaroo. But [my policy] means across the board. I’m not going to play a festival unless they require either vaccine proof or a negative test. I have my own festival in Alabama [ShoalsFest in October], and we’re going to require that at my festival, and if Kay Ivey won’t let us do it, then we will not have the festival, as much as it breaks my heart to say it.
There’s no leeway on that as far as you’re concerned.
The test is the leeway, and that’s plenty. They’ve got a better test now where they can just do it real comfortably and it takes three minutes and it’s no problem. And they’re cheap. You can get tests now at Walgreens and there are still a lot of free testing facilities. So I’m not buying any of this, “We can’t afford to go get a test” bullshit. You might not be able to afford a positive result, but you should not be going about your business if you are Covid-positive.
Nashville clubs announced a similar policy yesterday. What’s your take on that, especially as it relates to the local musicians?
That’s a very specific point that needs to be made. At my level, I can make that decision and implement it. That can’t happen if people are playing Exit/In or Mercy Lounge. They need the venues to step up and take that heat, because the venues have more power than the artists in those situations. So I was really proud to see those places do that. It was their responsibility to take that on and not force the hand of these artists who are trying to make a living on one show at a time.
What would you say to fans who object to the proof-of-vax or negative-test mandate?
I think if people will look inside themselves, they will see that in most cases, the truth is that they are afraid to get the vaccine. I understand that. When my dad got the vaccine, he was afraid to get the vaccine. My wife got the vaccine, and she was afraid to get the vaccine. And they sat down and had a discussion. They talked to their doctor. The doctor told them, “This is why you don’t need to be afraid of this.” And they went and they got the vaccine.
I think a big problem with this is the fact that people don’t feel comfortable saying, “I’m afraid.” It’s so much easier to say, “Well, you can catch Covid even if you’ve been vaccinated” or “I’ve heard a lot of people getting sicker from the vaccine” or “This is just like the flu.” “This is just like the flu” is an interesting one to me, because until this point, it has not been just like the flu. It has been a whole hell of a lot worse than the flu. What we’re trying to get to is a point where Covid is just like the flu. That’s the win. That means that we get to have our lives back and our economy gets to do better. People get to go back to work and back to shows and families can be together. And you don’t have to worry about hundreds of thousands of people dying. It can be just like the flu — if we will all just go ahead and admit what we’re afraid of, communicate with the people that we trust, and get the damn vaccine if we can.
A lot of artists on tour now are reporting getting sick. Are you testing daily?
We’re testing band and crew every day. I’ve got a big old stack of tests, rapid tests, in my wardrobe case.
The trappings of the rock star life…
Yeah, it’s like, “Get out your snakeskin boots and stick a swab up your nose!”
You didn’t ask for this, but you’ve become something of a beacon for fans and for artists right now. How do you feel about that?
That’s fine with me. I have a lot of patience. I think the things that I learned when I was recovering from alcoholism made me more capable of handling a situation like this. But I’m not the first that did this. Widespread Panic are doing the same thing, and Japanese Breakfast did it pretty early. But I’m fine with whatever responsibility is put on me. I’m a white man. You know, there’s no reason to have all this privilege and power if I don’t use it for something good every once in a while.