The two met almost 20 years ago, when Welch was a young journalist for rock magazine The Fader, doing a story on the Drive-By Truckers, the rock band Isbell was in before he went solo and then founded his band the 400 Unit, named for the mental health ward of an Alabama hospital.
“We sort of saw the world in a similar way, and became friends,” Isbell says. Eventually, their wives would become friends as well, and the couples would vacation together. When Welch decided he needed to stop drinking, the first person he turned to was Isbell, who had been sober about a year at that point. (Every year Isbell is sober he adds a tattoo of a tally mark on his forearm; in 2022 he added his 10th.)
“Early on we probably bonded over inebriation,” Isbell says. “But it’s really important to have somebody you can rely on who has been through the same kind of challenges you have faced.”
The Fox Theatre event has its roots in 2019, when Isbell interviewed Welch while guest-hosting the WNYC podcast “Sex, Death and Money,” where people talk about the topics that make them uncomfortable.
“That gave us the idea: What if we did it in person?” says Welch.
One of their discussion topics is what Welch dubbed “the New Masculinity.” He took over running men’s magazine GQ in 2019 at the peak of the #MeToo movement, and leaned into the challenge.
“It’s a cultural conversation that’s happening,” he says. “Who we thought we needed to be, or who we were taught we needed to be. As we’ve matured, we’ve realized that we need to break out of the limitations of what a man was supposed to look like and sound like and act like and dress like.”
Adds Isbell: “In a lot of ways that’s been the theme of my musical career. I’m trying to publicly and openly figure out a way to be a man and still treat people with dignity and respect even if they’re not a man. It’s really a question of letting people behave how they want to as long as it doesn’t encroach on my ability to lead a fulfilling life.”
Once they decided to do their schtick as a one-time live act, Isbell’s team booked the Fox Theatre because it’s, well, the Fox.
“The Fox is on par with the Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville) among the best indoor venues in the country,” says Isbell. “It’s one of my favorite places on earth. It seemed like a no-brainer.”
Welch was born in Atlanta and grew up in Buckhead, then left at age 18 to go to Columbia University in New York City. “I grew up in the shadow of the Fox Theatre, but being on that stage, that wasn’t my dream,” he says. “It never even crossed my mind that this would be happening.”
An Evening of Conversation and Song with Jason Isbell & Will Welch. 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec 17. $45.50-$149.50. 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499. foxtheatre.org.