Friday, June 30, 2017

Jason Isbell - Tony's Picks

It’s hard to put Jason Isbell into a neat, tidy little box.  What kind of music does he play – rock, alt-country, folk, soul, or Americana [whatever that is]?  He lives in Nashville.  He’s worked with country producer Dave Cobb for his last three records [Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and his latest The Nashville Sound], the same guy who produces Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.  But on tour, he’s playing Whipping Post, a very “un-country” song.  Sometimes he’ll play quiet, acoustic songs, other songs will have fiddles, the familiar twang of Telecasters and steel guitars. To further complicate things, sometimes he and the 400 Unit will sound like Neil Young & Crazy Horse [don't laugh - he released a very convincing cover of Like a Hurricane in 2012].  He’s all of the above.  Soulfully country-ish, he mixes his rock ‘n roll influences, intertwining his music with Southern themes of home, family, hard work with more universal topics of addiction, loneliness, loss, heartbreak, love and redemption.  But I think the quality that best exemplifies Jason Isbell’s music is empathy.  He can easily put himself in someone else’s shoes and know what they’re feeling about, well, anything.

I first heard of Jason Isbell when he was in the band Drive-By Truckers.  He first filled in for a no-show guitarist for DBT’s Southern Rock Opera tour, and stuck around for three albums with them [Decoration Day, The Dirty South, A Blessing and a Curse].  Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, DBT had three guitar players, each of whom was also a songwriter [himself, Patterson Hood, and Mike Cooley].  Excellent storytellers all, but Isbell's songs stand out.  Isbell was in DBT for six years [2001-07], after which time his hard partying and heavy drinking caught up with him and he got fired from the band.  Too bad for them – he was their best singer and guitarist, and a damn fine songwriter.  He went from writing two or three songs per DBT album to having to write an entire album's worth of material.  Some of it was very good, some of it not so much.  Then he met Amanda Shires.  A singer-songwriter in her own right [and a pretty good one] who also plays violin and guitar, the two started to work together on Isbell's Here We Rest.  They fell in love, he said to her once too often that he needed to go to rehab, she took him up on it and he dried out.  Now sober, it seems like everything Jason Isbell writes or touches turns to gold, starting with Southeastern [2013].  He and Shires married the day after he finished Southeastern.  Two years later he followed that with Something More Than Free, and just a couple of weeks ago came The Nashville Sound.  He’s on a winning streak.

Here are my favorite Isbell songs …

Dress Blues [Sirens of the Ditch, 2007]
“Dress Blues,” from Jason Isbell’s debut solo album was based on the real-life death of Matthew Conley, a high school acquaintance from Isbell’s hometown who died in the Iraq War. The song was recently covered on Zac Brown Band’s hit album Jekyll + Hyde'You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleepin' in your dress blues.'

Elephant [Southeastern, 2013]
This is a sad ballad of a woman battling and dying from cancer and the friend, the song’s narrator, who spends her last days with her. ‘Elephant’ refers to ‘the elephant in the room’ the two people don’t want to talk about – the friend dying of cancer. 

According to Isbell - "It's not a song about what happens to people with cancer. It's a song about having a friend with an illness that can't be cured and about being the right kind of friend in that situation. People don't want to be treated differently because they're sick. They don't want that cloud always hanging over the conversation. They want to live out what life they have left. You have to fight your instincts to be overly sympathetic; you have to treat them as if they're the same people."

Cover Me Up [Southeastern, 2013]
Isbell’s straightforward song about getting sober and opening himself up to wife Amanda Shires is one of his best — simply because it is so vulnerable and deeply felt. “That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal,” he told NPR in 2013.

Stockholm [Southeastern, 2013]
“Stockholm” is the musical twin of Cover Me Up.  She helped him replace his old love of booze (which he was shackled too) and made him see what true love really could be.  He gave the song its name because that’s where he wrote it.

Decoration Day [Decoration Day, 2003]
From his first album with Drive By Truckers, the song tells of a sort of modern day Hatfields & McCoys feud between two families by the name of the Hills and Lawsons and the history of that feud. The feud had been going on so long the people involved don’t remember what started it.
Tour of Duty [Here We Rest, 2011]
Unlike the subject of Dress Blues, this veteran came home from war.  We learn of a soldier’s return home and all of the things he wants to do now that he’s back like enjoy his family, eat oysters and not relive the nightmare that was his war service. “I've done my tour of duty; now I'm home and I ain't leaving here again.

Songs That She Sang in the Shower [Southeastern, 2013]
The narrator of the song recalls losing a love to his own stupidity and excesses. The one thing he absolutely can’t stand since she’s gone is to hear or remember all of the songs she used to sing in the shower, like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine, or Dusty Springfield’s Breakfast In Bed.  My ex liked the Eagles…now you know why I’m like The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

Outfit [Decoration Day, 2003]
Another gem from DBT’s Decoration Day. The song about a father’s advice to his son leaving home. 
Don't call what you're wearing an outfit, don't ever say your car is broke
Don't worry about losing your accent, a southern man tells better jokes 
Have fun, stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away

Alabama Pines [Here We Rest, 2011]
“Alabama Pines” is loneliness and desolation defined that truly speaks those who’ve experienced similar things to what the song’s narrator is going through. If you don’t like the sound of Isbell’s voice after this song, you never will.
Go It Alone [Here We Rest, 2011]
This is Isbell plugged in, in bar-band country-blues mode. The guy in the song has to press restart on his life — in part because he’s lost a woman, presumably due to divorce [he split with first wife Shona Tucker before getting the boot from DBT].  “I’m realizing just how far I had to fall / And taking it home to go it alone again.”  He hadn’t “hit bottom” yet, but he could see it coming.

Speed Trap Town [Something More Than Free, 2015]
There are lots of these places in the South, where nothing really happens and the only way the town makes money to issue speeding tickets to outsiders who are just passing through.  These are small places that might have one traffic light, but probably not.  “Everybody knows you in a speed trap town…”  The protagonist gets the feeling it’s time he left the small town where he grew up:

Well it's a Thursday night but there's a high school game
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name
These 5A bastards run a shallow cross
It's a boy's last dream and a man's first loss
And it never did occur to me to leave 'til tonight
And there's no one left to ask if I'm alright
I'll sleep until I'm straight enough to drive, then decide
If there's anything that can't be left behind

Traveling Alone [Something More Than Free, 2015]
Anyone who travels a lot for a living [truckers, touring musicians, software testers for the Air Force] knows the loneliness of the road, especially when you’re traveling by yourself and longing for a companion: “I know every town worth passing through/But what good does knowing do with no one to show it to?” Isbell nailed it.

Something More Than Free [Something More Than Free, 2015]
Isbell must think a lot of his dad, for this isn’t the first time he’s referred to his words of wisdom in song. 

The line in the title track, ‘I’m just lucky to have the work’, comes from something my Dad always used to say. He’s only 19 years older than me and he still works really hard. I do try and stay close to the people I grew up with who maybe have a different lifestyle to the way mine is now. I’m not interested in writing about musicians or touring. The people who’re most under-represented, at least in our society, are the people who work too hard for too little reward. My Dad spoke about how he’d love to go to church with the family on Sunday but, working the other six days of the week, he’s too exhausted to get up and go. And he doesn’t drink or smoke, either. It seems like that might be something worth writing a song about. Where I grew up, the only thing people have to be proud of is the fact that they work hard every day. They don’t have wealth or social status. Calling somebody ‘a good man’ there is the equivalent of calling him a hard-worker.

24 Frames [Something More Than Free, 2015]
This is one of those songs where you think you know what he’s singing about, but not really…

“You thought God was an architect/ Now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ And everything you built was all for show/ Goes up in flames in 24 frames.”

Cumberland Gap [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Here’s young guy stuck in a place where he sees no future and knows “there’s a reason I always reach for the harder stuff.” Cumberland Gap is a historical place where Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all come together, where people traversed to “head west”.  It could be anywhere in the South, where natural beauty, the strong sense of home and familial ties keep people glued to these locations for generations.  But economic forces [probably coal mining in this case] conspire to keep them there until the resources dry up.

If We Were Vampires [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Isbell finishes a list of things he loves about his wife with a dose of reality: “If were vampires and love was a joke, we’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke … It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever, likely one of us will have to spend some days alone, maybe we’ll get 40 years together and one day I’ll be gone and one day you’ll be gone.”

Last of My Kind [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
The rural kid goes to the big city and experiences major disorientation.  Musicians can appreciate this line: “Nobody here can dance like me/Everybody's clapping on the one and the three…”

Anyone who’s gone to a big, impersonal university can relate to this:

“I tried to go to college but I didn't belong
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
Left me alone in a bad part of town
Thirty-six hours to come back down”

Did he go to school in Boulder?  I got left on the north side of town once, but that was from too much beer, not amphetamines.

Danko/Manuel [The Dirty South, 2004]
This is it, the song I think is the best one in DBT’s catalog.  If he never wrote another one, this would still qualify him as a great songwriter.  He started off writing it from the view of Richard Manuel or Rick Danko, but it evolved into a song about his own experiences.

I was reading This Wheel’s on Fire, the Levon Helm book about his time with The Band. He talks about how they had this pact on the road — it was kind of a joke —that whoever died first, they would take his body, take him home, and bury him and all of that. And that stuck with me, juxtaposed with the scene of Richard (Manuel) being found in a hotel room when they were at their lowest point, when they weren’t making a lot of money or doing a lot creatively, and Richard ended up killing himself. I thought about that and it really moved me, especially considering that I was traveling around with a band at the time and we were having some problems — problems with addiction and depression, and trying to stay relevant and get relevant in the first place. I saw a lot of myself in that book.
Live Oak [Southeastern, 2013]
This one asks a simple question – did you like the “drunk me” or the “sober me”? “That one originated out of sobriety. When I stopped drinking... there were so many things I had to face that I didn’t even realize were part of my makeup before.”

Seven-Mile Island [Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 2009]
The lyrics tell of an unwanted pregnancy and a dead-beat dad hoping to find himself in an Alabama cave.  Seven-Mile Island is a wildlife preserve in Alabama. 

It's a location that's right out in the middle of the Tennessee River. It's close to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I was a kid, everybody used to go out there and hunt arrowheads.  I think it's more about the father in the son, really. He's really I guess kind of despondent about the whole situation. That thing that has happened, nobody planned. So he's really looking for a way out more than anything else. I guess that's, you can say, pretty similar to the people who left their groups, the natives that left their group and for whatever reason just gave up their lives and traveled by themselves or in a smaller group. I guess that location: He was looking for kind of an asylum from what was going on his life.”

Sunstroke [Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 2009]
This one is psychedelic, a polar opposite of most of the rootsy stuff Isbell does.  This is a good headphones song.  There’s no deep meaning here [if there is it escapes me] – it’s just a cool song.

Tupelo [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Isbell wants to get away from it all.   After he finishes his "plastic cup of real good wine" and finally sobers up, he plans to relocate to northern Mississippi, where "the summer is blistering, so there ain't no one from here that'll follow me there." Would you follow anybody to Tupelo?

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