Jason Isbell helps Doug Jones court voters at campaign event in Birmingham

Current Work | Tue, 03/03/2020 at 09:46 AM

(AL.com) — While Republicans in Alabama were waiting for election results on Super Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones reached out to voters in Birmingham with some help from a home-state hero.

Jason Isbell, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter with roots in Green Hill, showed his support for Jones, a Democrat, with an hourlong concert at the Lyric Theatre, 1800 Third Ave. North.

“I think Doug is a good person, and I think he makes decisions based on what he believes to be right and wrong, and not his own self-interest,” Isbell, 41, said in an interview with AL.com before the 7 p.m. show. “I’m proud that he’s representing my family and my friends in Alabama, and I’d like to see him keep the seat, if at all possible.”

Isbell said he believes Jones is the best person to represent the state in Washington, D.C., pointing to the senator’s sense of honor and strong moral code.

“I feel like Doug has a long history of doing the right thing when it’s not necessarily the most popular thing,” Isbell said. "And he proved that with the (presidential) impeachment vote most recently, being the only vote for impeachment anywhere in the Southeast. After that I sent him an email, just thanking him for standing up for what he thought was right, despite the fact that that vote was probably not going to go his way. He did it anyway. And it may have helped him politically to vote against impeachment, and I think he knew that as well as anybody, but he still did what he thought was the right thing.

“That’s really all it kind of takes for me," Isbell continued. "Even if it’s somebody from the other side of the aisle, a conservative politician, I have respect for people who do what they think is right, and not what they think will benefit them. Doug has continued to make those kinds of decisions, so I’ll continue to support him.”

Tuesday’s sold-out event at the Lyric was a fundraiser for Jones, with ticket prices that ranged from $100 to $2,800. The theater, a 1914 vaudeville house that was restored for a re-opening in 2016, has a capacity of about 750 people. Proceeds from Isbell’s concert will benefit the Doug Jones for Senate campaign.

Isbell, who performed at Lyric in a solo acoustic format, also appeared on stage with Jones in front of a cheering crowd. Jones, 65, is running for re-election this year, unopposed on the Democratic ticket. He’ll face the Republican nominee in the November elections.

“We have started to change the state, from one end of Alabama to the other,” Jones told the audience at the Lyric. He decried divisive politics in his brief pre-concert remarks, echoing his campaign theme of “One Alabama.”

Isbell said he might not agree to perform for just any Democrat hoping to maintain a senate seat in Alabama.

“I consider myself to be a Democrat, but not at all costs. I try to go with the best person for the job, and I definitely feel like Doug will be that,” Isbell told AL.com. “I think Doug cares more for the people of Alabama than he does for himself. And there’s a lot of evidence of that, if you want to go back and look at his record, I think it becomes obvious that he’s not in it for his own personal gain. He’s in it to represent the people of Alabama. And I don’t think that will be true of his opponent. I just don’t. I might be wrong, but I think his opponent will likely prove to be somebody who’s a little more self-serving. And I think there’ll be evidence that points to that.”

This isn’t the first time Isbell, an Americana artist, has used his music to give Jones a boost.

In December 2017, Isbell played a free solo show at SideTracks Music Hall in Huntsville, to help Jones rustle up votes in a special election for the U.S. Senate. At the time, Jones was vying against Republican Roy Moore for the Senate seat previously held by Jeff Sessions. Jones won that election, becoming the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama since 1992.

“You know, when I played a show in Huntsville during Doug’s last campaign, it struck me when I was up there on stage. It was really moving for me," Isbell said. "Because, growing up in north Alabama, I sort of gravitated toward people who had similar beliefs, as we do, especially when we’re teenagers. Those people were like oases sometimes, in a desert of the other. To be in a room surrounded by a large group of folks from Alabama who agreed with me on a lot of issues, and just on basic human rights issues, it felt really good, and it moved me."

Sessions and Moore are among seven candidates in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the U.S. senate. The race also includes former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville and U.S. Rep Bradley Byrne of Fairhope. The winner remained unclear Tuesday night at about 9:45 p.m.

Jones took aim at three of his potential opponents at the Lyric event, saying Sessions and Byrne don’t talk about what they’ve done for Alabama because they haven’t done anything. “And then you’ve got a coach who doesn’t talk about winning championships ... because he didn’t win any,” Jones said, prompting laughter and applause.

Jones also took note of Joe Biden’s win in the Alabama Democratic primary for president, saying, “Joe, for those of you who care, is doing really good tonight.”

Although Isbell made sure to talk about his support for Jones at the Lyric, his primary role for the evening was to play music. The north Alabama native did so with gusto, performing signature songs such as “If We Were Vampires,” “24 Frames,” “Tour of Duty,” “Cover Me Up," “Something More Than Free,” “Speed Trap Town” and “Alabama Pines.”

Isbell also played a couple of songs from his new record, “Reunions,” set for release on May 15.

“I was kind of hoping me and Doug could do a duet, but ... it wasn’t in the cards,” Isbell told the audience. “Maybe next time, Doug.”

“No, I don’t think so!” Jones shot back from his seat.

“I tell you what, Doug, when you win, we’ll sing a duet,” Isbell said.

Isbell, who lives in Nashville, remains a favorite with music fans in his home state. He’s the leader of a band called the 400 Unit, and a former member of the Drive-By Truckers. Isbell has six solo albums to his credit and four Grammy Awards to date, including a 2018 trophy for Best Americana Album for “The Nashville Sound.”

Isbell moved to Tennessee eight years ago, but said he continues to follow politics and social issues in Alabama.

“I follow as closely as I can without reaching the point of emotional diminishing returns," Isbell told AL.com. "I think that’s the trick for me. And that’s always been the case.I remember when I was working at Walmart in Florence in 1996, maybe, and I met a guy there who was campaigning for himself out in the parking lot, and started asking him some questions. And he was a Republican who never won; he never got elected.

"But I remember being a teenager and feeling a spark of interest in politics in Alabama, and trying to keep up as much as I can since then. I have the time to keep up, but you know, patience -- I think I develop more patience as I get older, so that helps a lot.

“The political climate in Alabama, just like everywhere else in the country right now, is one that can drag you down if you’re not careful,” Isbell said. "If you get too frustrated, you’re not helping anymore. So I try to find that line.”

(Mary Colurso, AL.com)