Jason Isbell gets personal in new documentary

Brooke J. Freundschuh, Editor-in-Chief

Jason Isbell, the renowned singer/songwriter and former member of The Drive by Truckers, is one of the most well-known celebrities from Muscle Shoals, Ala.

His career began when he joined The Drive by Truckers by accident in 2001 when he filled in for their guitarist at one show, and his life has never been the same again. In his newly released documentary, streaming exclusively on the streaming platform, HBO Max, fans are taken through a biopic of his life from the beginning to the present. 

What started as a documentary capturing the recording of his 2020 record with his band, the 400 Unit, turned into a bigger display of Isbell’s life and an intimate look into his life and relationship with his wife, musician Amanda Pearl Shires. The record “Reunions” was released in 2020, despite the pandemic, but the documentary takes a turn in showing how the recording of this record seemingly tore apart his relationship with Shires, but the time they spent together in quarantine with their daughter Mercy saved it. 

It is utterly raw and vulnerable. There is a scene that shows Shires reading an email she sent to Isbell when he had not spoken to her in days and she thought they were nearing separation. It shows footage of Isbell drunk on stage the night before he was admitted to rehab for his alcoholism and drug addiction, a video that he personally uses as a warning to himself to never turn back to his vices. 

Through the in-studio footage of Isbell recording songs off of “Reunions” , such as “Dreamscicle”, “Only Children”, and “St. Peter’s Autograph” his life story as a whole unfolds. 

Both of his biological parents are interviewed in the documentary, and through the story of their troubled past and experience raising him when they were children themselves, the world gets to see how Isbell turned to music as an escape from his troubled home life. In the film, Isbell tells of being overweight and unpopular growing up, saying, “I read books and i didn’t play football and just that was enough to get pickles thrown at you in the lunch room.”

Isbell shares his struggles with mental health as a man growing up in the south. His band name “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit” is named after the psychiatric ward formerly at the Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence. I did not know the origin of this name before watching the documentary. Isbell is quoted as saying that growing up people were categorized as simply “crazy” or “normal” and crazy people went to the 400 Unit and normal people sucked it up and went to work.”

Fans get to know Amanda Shires just as well as they get to know Isbell throughout the course of the film. As an Isbell fan, I admittedly did not know much about Shires before watching this documentary, but loved getting to know her gentle personality. Although she is depicted as being the key supporting figure in Isbell’s life, the documentary does a great job of showing and emphasizing that she is her own person with her own music career and talent who was established long before she met and was romantically associated with Isbell, which I appreciate.

The film starts out showing how close Isbell and Shires are. Thoughts floated through my head about how they were absolutely soul mates, but these thoughts came to a halt when they began to have serious problems and arguments. The narrative is framed this way intentionally to give the viewer a fly on the wall approach into their relationship dynamic as romantic partners, co-parents and band mates. 

Isbell reveals that Shires is the only other person who hears any of his lyrics before the band meets at the studio to record. Even the other members of the band are left in the dark until the material is presented in the studio. Shires struggle fitting into the band is also revealed, because although she plays the violin in the 400 Unit, she does not always feel like a full-time member of the band, especially when she’s not needed in the studio. When she is in the studio, it is easy for her and Isbell to get under one-another’s feet. Shires has a master’s degree in creative writing and often helps Isbell edit his lyrics, as is shown by footage. Isbell explains that most couples wait all day to see each other when they get home from work, but when they work together every day, they don’t have anything left to talk about at home, putting a strain on their relationship. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations for fans is that Shires has a hard time listening to “Cover Me Up,” Isbell’s hit song about her helping him overcome addiction. 

The Trucker’s Patterson Hood also plays a key role in the documentary when describing Isbell’s time in the band and ultimate firing when his addictions became too severe. 

Overall, “Running With Our Eyes Closed” is an excellent documentary that is an essential watch for any fan of Isbell’s music who wants to know more about the man behind the songs and any fan of Muscle Shoals music.