The best singer-songwriters possess a rare ability to share their personal experiences through word and melody, touching upon universal themes that settle and resonate deeply within the heart of the listener. Once received, this gift often stokes the embers of empathy, encouraging contemplation and action.
The alt-country artist Jason Isbell has embraced this skill with a gentle confidence, consistently creating some of the most passionate and socially engaged music out there today.
In his late 30s, Isbell possesses a thorough appreciation for the human condition, as one who has slogged through a divorce, has battled alcoholism and was fired (unanimously) by his former bandmates in the Drive-By Truckers. He has also, thankfully, savored some of life’s great blessings, including falling in love with the musician Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle in his band the 400 Unit, becoming a father, and finding popularity and acclaim as a musician.
In his late 30s, Isbell possesses a thorough appreciation for the human condition.
I discovered Isbell in 2013 after hearing a glowing review of his album “Southeastern” on NPR. This is a brilliant collection of songs, expressing intelligent lyricism accompanied by a generous helping of vulnerability and self-awareness. Many of the songs chronicle Isbell’s failed relationships and struggle with alcoholism, with more than a hint of hope that he has been freed of much of the turmoil of the past. “I made it through with somebody new, I was meant for someone,” he sings in the opening track, “Cover Me Up.”
He has since released two more excellent albums, “Something More Than Free” (2015) and his 2017 release, backed by the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound.” Isbell creates exquisite images and packs bountiful emotion, imagination and detail into carefully chosen prose. One poignant example comes from the song “Children of Children,” from “Something More Than Free” The song relays a true story about his mother becoming pregnant with him at the age of 17 and how her decision to have a child while still a child herself had long-reaching consequences for both of them:
Pictures of the farm before us
Old men in a gospel chorus
Sepia and saddle horses
Easy on the reins
’81 a motor inn your Momma’s 17 again
She’s squinting at the dusty wind
The anger of the plains
You and I were almost nothing
Pray to God that gods were bluffing
Seventeen ain’t old enough to reason with the pain
How could we expect the two to stay in love
When neither knew the meaning of
The difference between sacred and profane
I was riding on my mother’s hip
She was shorter than the corn
And all the years I took from her
Just by being born
A song like this demands attention and rumination, and it elicits appreciation for the English language’s capacity to manipulate us (in the positive sense of the word). Many of Isbell’s songs invite us to probe his wounds, to run our fingers across his soul’s scar tissue and be reminded that beauty and pain can be inseparable. We recognize ourselves in his brokenness, and as we savor the music, we feel the ache awoken by gentle melodies married to striking poetry.
Another song from “Something More Than Free”—”24 Frames”—is one that I have been carrying with me for months. Again, Isbell’s savvy facilitation with words is paramount—in one turn of phrase he shakes up traditional notions of the Divine and leaves the listener (or at least this listener) with an experience that is simultaneously confusing and comforting. Within a mid-tempo soft melody, Isbell sings:
You thought God was an architect
but now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb
ready to blow
and everything you build that’s all for show
goes up in flames
in 24 frames
Twenty-four is the standard number of frames of film that move by the eye every second of viewing. Swiftly and without warning, everything that we think we know can be turned on its head, disorienting us and making us as vulnerable. This is good and necessary, at least on occasion, for it is only in this state that we can authentically invite God into our lives, when there is no illusion that we are in control or that we know who and what God is—we are left as one gasping for air in a vacuum and we have no other choice. Reflecting on this song has assisted me in blowing up some of the childish theology I had carried into adulthood and has aided me in a quest toward something more mature.
Isbell wants to be a better man and he uses his songs as a road map to get there.
As a native of Alabama, Isbell is wise to not ignore the complex history and contemporary reality of the American South. There is immense beauty in the land where he was reared, as he eloquently sings about in an early solo piece called “Alabama Pines.” But he does not shy away from calling attention to the depravity and ugliness that is also prominent in its culture. At times he plays with subtle references, such as when he covers Neil Young in concert, an artist who rained down searing criticism in his song “Southern Man.” At other times Isbell is much more overt. The track “White Man” on “The Nashville Sound” is a blunt assessment of privilege and the obligations that American culture owes to those it has marginalized:
I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Oh, the times ain’t forgotten
There’s no such thing as someone else’s war
Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
You’re still breathing, it’s not too late
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate
Isbell wants to be a better man and he uses his songs as a road map to get there. He is clearly embarrassed by his own contribution to the evils of sexism and racism, but that doesn’t prevent him from challenging us all to admit our own culpability in these matters.
We live in a culture that immerses us in music. Much of it is floating in the background, barely noticed by our consciousness, maintaining us in a constant buzz that robs us from contemplative silence. But there is also music that is challenging and rich with vibrant meaning. It beckons us to lock horns with it and experience it pushing and pulling our spirit. This is its own form of contemplation.
Ideally this music also moves us to action toward a better world for everyone. And if we pay close attention we will find Jason Isbell right alongside us, helping us to hope by doing what God put him here to do.