Jason Isbell

TrackAlbum
In A Razor TownSirens Of The Ditch
Alabama PinesHere We Rest
Cover Me UpSoutheastern
Traveling AloneSoutheastern
ElephantSoutheastern
StockholmSoutheastern
24 FramesSomething More Than Free
Something More Than FreeSomething More Than Free
Last Of My KindThe Nashville Sound
If We Were VampiresThe Nashville Sound
Bonus Track
Children Of ChildrenSomething More Than Free

Jason Isbell photo 1

photo: Danny Clinch

 

 

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Jason Isbell playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Jason Isbell first came to prominence in the early 2000s with the great alt-country band, Drive-By Truckers. During his time with them, he wrote some of the finest songs in his early career including ones of the quality of Outfit, Decoration Day and Danko/Manuel. During this time, however, Isbell was also falling prey to some of the temptations which life on the road entailed. These personal problems helped to create tensions within the group and eventually led to Isbell’s departure in 2007. At the same time, his marriage to fellow group-member, bassist Shonna Tucker, also broke up. In consequence, the period following his departure from the band was undoubtedly something of a traumatic one for him. It also led to an enforced re-evaluation of his future musical direction. The first three albums of his solo career (Sirens Of The Ditch, Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, Here We Rest) – while being excellent in their own right – all show clear evidence of being transitional. By the time of his fourth solo album, Southeastern, he had fully realised the potential which he had shown in his early work. On it, Isbell achieved a potent fusion of his early influences which included folk, rock and soul music, with an added tinge of alt-country style edginess. The album also signalled his emergence as a songwriter of the very first rank with an individual style and distinctive poetic sensibility.

 

ALABAMA PINES

Jason Isbell was born in Green Hill, Alabama in 1979. His family was a musical one. Indeed, in an interview with Jared Booth of the Charleston City Paper, Isbell recalled that his “grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, and cousins … all played music together once or twice a week”. His uncles also taught him both the mandolin and guitar and the family introduced him to a wide range of musical influences. These went all the way from Merle Haggard (who Isbell has described as “the best country songwriter there ever was”), Chet Akins, Merle Travis and George Jones through singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, John Prine, John Hiatt and Randy Newman to bands like Thin Lizzy, Queen and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Also, Isbell’s hometown was close to the famous Muscle Shoals studio (for more on the history of that renowned institution, see Dave Stephens’ excellent Toppermost on Arthur Alexander). When he was growing up, some of the great musicians who had worked on sessions there were still playing in the local restaurants/bars. These included the brilliant organist, Spooner Oldham and the bassist, David Hood. Through playing at the same venues, Isbell got to know both men. He also began to explore the music by the great artists they had worked with; people of the stature of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones.

Isbell’s combination of musical influences made him a perfect fit for Drive-By Truckers when he joined the band in 2001. Indeed, the blend of alt-country with southern rock influences was one he carried on in his later work. As his solo career developed, however, his work became characterised by a greater subtlety and by an increasing emphasis on character sketches. The latter reflected his interest in literature and in the great American short story writing tradition. Its influence could principally be seen in the increased economy in both style and language in his songs. In this regard, his solo work was heavily inspired by great American writers like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver.

Like Carver, he increasingly wrote about working class people whose lives had not worked out in the way that they had intended. My first selection, In A Razor Town from Isbell’s debut solo album, Sirens Of The Ditch, is a fine example of this. It includes a portrayal of what appears to be a doomed relationship taking place in a dying small town. Isbell’s own upbringing had given him him a keen awareness of the effects which economic decline – and the social problems which often accompanied it – had caused in such places. For me, it is the first truly great song of his solo career.

The far more upbeat Codeine from the same album also came close to inclusion. In recent times, it has become a central part of Isbell’s live shows and is usually a highlight of them.

The next pick, Alabama Pines, comes from Jason Isbell’s third album, Here We Rest, first released in 2011. On one level, it’s a nostalgic song with the narrator wishing to return home to the pines of the title. On another, it’s a study of an extreme level of personal isolation and a type of intense emotional detachment. The beauty of the melody also seems at odds with the darkness of its lyric and this tension gives the song much of its power.

 

TIRED OF TRAVELLIN’ ALONE

“I’m kind of picky about songwriters, you know. But when I heard Southeastern, it just killed me. I loved it. I like songs that are clean and don’t have much fat on them – every line is direct, and all people can relate to it. That’s what I try to do, and that’s what Jason does. I really haven’t heard anybody that different in probably 30 years.” John Prine

With the release of his brilliant solo album Southeastern in 2013, Isbell firmly established himself as a great songwriter in his own right. On it, he distilled all of his early influences into a unique synthesis which combined these disparate elements into something entirely fresh and new. His lyrics were also even more finely crafted than they had been up to that point. The themes which Isbell covered on the album were ones which he explored further in his later work; the difficulties and rewards of family life (he had already started a relationship with his soon-to-be second wife Amanda Shires, the songwriter and violinist, who plays on the album), the after-effects of his earlier struggles with, and recent recovery from, addiction and the painful processes by which maturity is achieved. The songs were also delivered with a hard-won wisdom which seemed to owe a good deal to some of the difficulties he had experienced in his own life up to that point.

The songs on the album were also consistently excellent and it was very difficult to decide which ones to exclude from this list. In the end, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole, including the beautiful Cover Me Up which is probably Isbell’s finest love song and Traveling Alone in which he renounces the hard-living single lifestyle he had pursued in the years since had left Drive-By Truckers.

 

 

Elephant, my next choice, is one of Isbell’s most accomplished songs. It is a brilliant depiction of the friendship between the song’s narrator and a woman who is suffering from terminal cancer. It is particularly remarkable for the mixture of sharp-eyed clarity (she said ‘Andy, you’re better than your past’/ winked at me and drained her glass/ cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore) and empathy with which Isbell describes the characters in the song. For me, it is an extraordinary achievement and ranks high among his very finest songs.

By contrast, Stockholm is another fine love song. Like the rest of the songs on Southeastern, it also includes some brilliant imagery (crossed the ocean, thousand years from my home / in this frozen old city of silver and stone and ships in the harbour and birds on the bluff / don’t move an inch when their anchor goes up).

If Southeastern established Isbell as a songwriter of note, his subsequent albums have further confirmed this position. My remaining choices come from the series of excellent albums he has made since then. These include the R.E.M.-influenced 24 Frames with its brilliant chorus: you thought God was an architect, now you know/ he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ and everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames. Unlike many of Isbell’s other songs, its lyric works less as a coherent narrative than as – to use Bob Dylan’s phrase – a chain of flashing images.

The title track, Something More Than Free, is a typically deft character sketch of a working class man who is living a life based on what Isbell has described as the idea of “service … a labour of love in the truest sense”. The narrator’s primary concern is to see that his family are provided for through his self-sacrifice. Isbell has also described it as a “country song” in the old-school sense, one based on “images … about work and family”.

 

In Last Of My Kind, Isbell takes on the perspective of someone who resembles himself when he first started touring “16 years ago”. He describes that person as feeling “isolated” and sensing that he didn’t “belong”. He also felt that “the way of life … [he} used to have … [was] dying”. Although Isbell’s own views have changed markedly since then, he succeeds in bringing that character vividly to life.

The final selection, If We Were Vampires, also from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, is one of his finest love songs. There is also a refined subtlety about the way in which it is constructed. It appears at the beginning as if it is going to be a conventional love song, but then veers off in a very different direction. In a sense, its central theme resembles that in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 (this thought is as a death, which cannot choose/ but weep to have that which it fears to lose). Here’s a live performance of the song featuring Chris Thile and Chris Eldridge …

As these selections show, Jason Isbell is a songwriter of immense talent whose best may be still to come. He has, however, already produced a substantial body of superb work, which stands comparison with that by the most eminent of his contemporaries.

 

BONUS TRACK

This magnificent song is a tribute to Isbell’s mother. She was only 17 when he was born and the song shows a remarkable empathy with the difficulties which this caused for her. Children Of Children also has a beautiful melody and, in more recent times, Isbell has turned it into a set-piece in his appearances. As an aside, it is worth pointing out that he is a superb live performer. Once these strange times are over – and gigs start up again – he is one of those artists whose shows should not be missed. His backing band – the 400 Unit – are also one of the very best around today.

 

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Reunions” (May 2020)

Jason Isbell photo 3

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “Reunions” lineup: Jimbo Hart (bass), Jason Isbell (lead vocals, guitars, piano), Chad Gamble (drums), Amanda Shires (fiddle), Sadler Vaden (guitars), Derry Deborja (keyboards) – photo: Danny Clinch

Reunions moves steadily and carefully, lingering on the conflicted emotions of his finely-etched tales and the band’s textured, elegant understatement” Pitchfork

“His most crisply produced and lyrically haunted work yet” Rolling Stone

“For the duration of Reunions, Isbell is rapturous, patient, conflicted, angry, and wounded. Joyful moments are stained with loss, desolate moments bring their own sense of pleasure. With a blend of fact and fiction, Isbell has secured his place among the greats of country-rock.”
The Line Of Best Fit

 

Jason Isbell official website

The Guardian article September 2018

New York Times article May 2013

Jambands interview July 2007

Amanda Shires official website

Drive-By Truckers (Wikipedia)

Jason Isbell biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

TopperPost #943

4 Comments

  1. Terry Newman
    Mar 19, 2021

    Great list Andrew. Elephant is an extraordinary song.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 21, 2021

    Thanks for kind words Terry. Agree that ‘Elephant’ is a brilliant song – probably my favourite by Jason.

  3. Preston Williams
    Mar 22, 2021

    Nice piece, Andrew. Settling on 10 must have been difficult but I really do think your list is a representative sampling of his best work for those familiar with his songs and for those who are not.
    Streetlights and Songs That She Sang in the Shower are a couple of personal favorites. But there are so many!

  4. Andrew Shields
    Mar 23, 2021

    Thanks for comment Preston. And, yes, it was hard to boil it down to 10. Southeastern is such a great record the temptation was there to include every track.

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