The Recent Soundtrack of This Blog: Jason Isbell

Today I thought I’d borrow a trick from philosopher Jamie Smith, one of my “indispensable Christian academics” on Twitter. In his books he not only acknowledges family, friends, and editors, but musicians whose recordings have been in the background of his writing. We are what we love (as Smith’s newest book reminds us), so while I don’t know what difference this makes to the writing of this blog, I thought I’d toss off a short post introducing readers to the artist whose music, as it has been most of the year, is currently in my earbuds: Jason Isbell.

I’m not sure how I missed Isbell’s brilliant post-rehab album, Southeastern, which received more than modest acclaim in 2013, but its good-not-great follow-up, Something More Than Free, finally got my attention last year. And it’s been a real treat not only to listen to those two albums, but to dig deeper into Isbell’s already-formidable catalog: both as a solo artist and as one of the three singer-songwriter-guitarists that formed the Drive-By Truckers’ strongest line-up.

The Jason Isbell story so far, in short: at age 21 the grandson of a guitar-playing Pentecostal preacher from Alabama gets a songwriting deal with the legendary R&B studio at Muscle Shoals, makes a good band better, marries and divorces the bass player, drinks himself out of the band, strikes out on his own, falls in love with a fiddler from Texas who (with the help of Ryan Adams!) gets him to go into rehab, writes his best songs, becomes a father, gets profiled on CBS Sunday Morning, etc.

There’s lots to be said about Isbell’s abilities as a storytelling songwriter and genre-spanning musician. But I’m most intrigued by his partnership with Amanda Shires, who’s a distinctive, talented artist in her own right. Just listen to the buoyant “Stockholm” and the bleak “Traveling Alone,” which are back-to-back on the first side of Southeastern. If I didn’t speak English, I’d still hit repeat just to enjoy the harmonies, but knowing some of the context for that range of lyrics… Well, just listen.

Again, I’m not really sure what it means that I find myself drawn to Isbell’s music right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s done more than lurk in the background of my writing of late. Just the other day, I found myself connecting some of my growing wariness of American culture with the lines that open “Flying Over Water”:

From the sky, we look so organized and brave
Walls that make up barricades and graves
Daddy’s little empire, built by hands and built by slaves
From the sky, we look so organized and brave

Isbell doesn’t tend to issue broad social or political commentaries. But with the same eye for detail that once looked in a mirror and saw an addict (“Damn near strangled by my appetite… Heart like a rebuilt part, I don’t know how much it’s got left”), he tells empathetic stories of people living on the edge of hopelessness.

But never quite going over that precipice.

Isbell doesn’t spiritualize suffering (of a cancer patient: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: no one dies with dignity”) and he’s more likely to liken God to “a pipe bomb waiting to blow” than to sing of faith. But hope glimmers through the lyrical darkness of songs like Southeastern‘s opening track: “…I made it through ’cause somebody knew I was meant for someone… cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good.”

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