One of the things I love about music is connecting the dots, following the threads that run from one song to another. That’s the main reason I started this blog...to provide a place where I could keep notes about all the things I learn as I unravel these strands and chase down the connective tissue that joins one song or one artist or one musical style to another. For example, since I love the blues, I took note when Tommy Emmanuel (another artist I’d found by chasing threads and surfing YouTube) had recorded “Deep River Blues.” Then I read that his duet partner was a fellow named Jason Isbell from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That name sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place him. So off I go on a thread-unraveling adventure.
The first step was, of course, to type his name into the Google search box. One of the first things I saw was a picture of his face staring back at me from the cover of one of his best-selling albums, “Southeastern.”
Wait, I do recognize him! Isn’t he that country singer who recorded “Dirt Road Anthem?”
I think I took a girlfriend to one of his concerts a few years ago.
Another visit to Google reveals the error of my ways. I was thinking of Jason Aldean.
In my defense, from Section 205, Row V, there was a more than passing resemblance between the two singers.
It turns out that Jason Isbell has been in the music game for a long time. He played on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry when he was just 16 years old. Then, later, he played with Drive-By Truckers for about six years. In 2007, he embarked on a successful solo career, sometimes with his backing band known as The 400 Unit (named after the psychiatric ward in their local hospital, but that’s a story for another time).
So I took the hunt to where it really belongs, down to the nitty-gritty. I turned to Spotify and started to listen to Jason Isbell’s music, beginning with his first solo album, “Sirens of the Ditch.”
As I usually do, I started with Track One. Some kind of rowdy pop number. Nope. Next. I was looking for a song that would stop me in my tracks, no pun intended, within the first few moments. Just like those Sony record executives I joked about in a previous post.
I didn't have to wait long. I stopped on the second track. The music had that Southern swampy rocky bluesy vibe from the initial "One, two, three, four..." count in that made me anticipate something good coming. But it was the vividly painted characters he introduced that made the song immediately sound more like Faulkner than fluff:
Standing in the window with his tongue hanging out
Like the king of something evil in a year-long drought
With a dirty white suit, a big white hat
A bullet in his pocket, no matter where he's at
He's trouble, but ain't we all?
Trouble, but ain't we all?
Okay, Jason. Good stuff. What else you got?
A couple of tracks later, I hit the best song on the album, "Dress Blues." This song is about an acquaintance of Isbell's from his hometown, Marine Cpl. Matthew Conley, who was killed in action in Iraq. It is both haunting and heartbreaking while still full of honor and genuine hometown values, in one of the most deft and understated pieces of writing ever delivered on such a subject.
From this impressive debut solo album I skipped forward to his 2013 album named "Southeastern" that was written in the year or two following Isbell becoming sober. Years of touring with the Drive-By Truckers and as a solo artist had seen Jason Isbell slide down a path of alcohol and drug abuse until friends and fellow musicians conducted an intervention. Now newly sober, the songs of this album seem intensely personal as Isbell writes of characters seeming to question if they can overcome past misdeeds, and whether others will still like the new versions they have tried to become. This was a "listen to every track" kind of album for me. I encourage you to do the same.
I hope you will do as I intend to and listen to more of this talented artist's newer albums as well. His writing and singing is honest, skillful, and engaging. It is hard to pin down his musical genre, as he seamlessly blends rock, country, folk, and a kind of Southern Americana roots music. It belongs in a record bin with a sign that just says "Really Good Stuff." It may not be real blues, but I like it.
I will leave you with two of my favorite tracks from his "Southeastern" album.