At the age of 22, Jason Isbell joined the rock band The Drive-By Truckers, kickstarting an impressive country music career with the band. After dangerous habits including excessive drinking drove the Truckers to force him out, Isbell began an equally-worthy solo career. His independent albums, including Sirens of the Ditch and Southeastern reflect Isbell’s life, from his tumultuous past up and through his process of getting sober. With his wife, country musician Amanda Shires, Isbell is currently the lead singer of the band Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The body of his work is packed with powerful lyrics and devastating memories; here are some highlight tracks.
1. “If It Takes a Lifetime”
Off of Isbell’s third solo album Something More Than Free, this uptempo song is about a man trying to mature, likely the singer himself. From a physically demanding job to a lonely home life, he is sticking to his new, responsible ways, despite the difficulties of their mundaneness, because he is determined to grow up.
2. “Speed Trap Town”
This track starts in the middle of a story: a girlfriend leaving the singer, for no given reason. Cut from the last tie to his hometown, he leaves, saying a final goodbye to his comatose father with whom he shares no relationship. On the road, heading nowhere specific, the singer leaves behind the memories of a loveless childhood.
In this gutting piece off of Isbell’s second solo album Southeastern, a friend of the singer slowly dies of cancer. As she loses her hair and slowly comes to terms with her impending death, he comes to the realization that “no one dies with dignity.” This song brings me to tears every time, and is reflective of the deeply personal stories Isbell often tells.
4. “New South Wales”
This is a song about a couple, likely Isbell and Shires themselves, that is newly independent of their old ways. Far from their homes, the nowhere-town setting offers a space for the two to try to establish their own traditions and memories, free of their pasts.
5. “Cover Me Up”
In this song, Isbell sings that he swore off his bad habits after ripping off Shires dress while under the influence. This love song is for her, the person who later saved him from his alcoholism, stuck with him through harsh moments like that one, and eventually became his wife and the mother of his child.
6. “Dress Blues”
This song resonates images of a Southern town facing the death of one of their young men, who was sent away as a soldier for “somebody’s Hollywood war.” Memories of the man’s wife and unborn child mix in with sad descriptions of a country funeral, highlighted by sweet-tea drinking mourners.
7. “Relatively Easy”
This track is the hidden gem of Southeastern: an easy-tempoed, acoustic ode to Isbell’s new life as a recovered addict. The lyrics include mentions of the worst moments of his addictions and other traumatic memories, but they’re sang over a relaxed melody and are intertwined with lines about happier times, making for an irresistibly relaxing song. The dramatic recollections speak to the difficulties of Isbell’s life, but also work in service to the larger point: it could be much worse.
8. “Decoration Day”
By far Isbell’s best known song from his Drive-By Truckers days, the setting of this track is Decoration Day, a common tradition of southern towns in which communities clean and decorate cemeteries in respect for the dead. Isbell sings of a family feud between the Lawsons and the Hills, one which ended in the murder of the Lawson patriarch, the singer’s father. The singer recalls not wanting to participate in the conflict, a stance rectified by his father’s brutality, described as “a chain on my back…my ear to the floor, and I’ll send all the Hill boys to hell.” The song just scratches the surface of the conflict traditions of small, Southern towns, histories which contain grudges that endure for generations.
9. “Never Gonna Change”
Another song from his Trucker days, “Never Gonna Change” is a song Isbell likes to end shows with, because it was written with improvisation and long solos in mind. The lyrics highlight the childhood experience of the singer, “daddy used to empty out his shotgun shells and fill ’em full of black-eyed peas. He’d aim real low and tear out your ankles or rip right through your knees.” This line and others speak to the brutality of his upbringing, though Isbell hesitates to say that the stories of his songs are all about his own experiences.
10. “Goddamn Lonely Love”
In this piece, the singer uses alcohol to deal with the loss of a love. Isbell sings the line, “so I’ll take two of what you’re having and I’ll take all of what you got to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love,” through a hauntingly strained, emotional tone. The depth of pain in this song and the way it’s performed are the reasons I think Isbell is the best country artist working today.