Jason Isbell: Making the Ordinary Exceptional

Music Features Jason Isbell
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Jason Isbell’s new album Something More Than Free had to be different from his last one. Southeastern, his 2013 release, was born out of the struggle for sobriety and stable romance and was necessarily autobiographical. But that’s a well you can’t go to too often without draining it dry.

“I realized I’d told my own story so much that I needed another story,” he says. “That happens to a lot of songwriters when they get into their 30s. They’ve written so much about themselves that they’ve got nothing left to say. When I made Southeastern, I was still uncomfortable in my skin. I didn’t have to look for something to write about; I just threw up on the page, though I did go back and do a lot of editing. I decided I didn’t want this one to be so self-centered. So I had to go look for things to write about.”

Like a novelist or a playwright, Isbell went searching for characters that fascinated him and for situations where those characters might reveal themselves. More often than not, those characters turned out to be working-class adults from North Alabama, the kind of people he grew up with, the kind of person he might have turned into himself if he hadn’t had an unusual ability for singing and songwriting.

The new album opens with the song “If It Takes a Lifetime,” the story of a guy who works for the county—perhaps it’s Lauderdale County in North Alabama, where Isbell was raised. Maybe he works for the Department of Motor Vehicles; in any case it’s a job he hates. “I can’t recall a day when I didn’t want to disappear,” Isbell sings off-handedly over his bouncy, old-time country picking, “but I keep on showing up, hell-bent on growing up.” He fights the hunger for alcohol and cannabis so he can pass the county’s urine test, and he fights an addiction even more pernicious than that: “the urge to live inside my telephone.”

“I usually start with some aspects of a real person, a real conversation I’ve read or overheard,” Isbell explains. “I’ll try to create a character out of that, someone that the listener can resonate with, but I’m always in there too. And I’ve found it’s real hard to write about someone who’s working every day at a job they hate in a way that describes their experience without putting yourself above them, like I’m on a cloud looking down at these people.”

There’s no condescension in this song. The story’s protagonist may be newly divorced (“I’m learning how to be alone”) and stuck in a dead-end job; he may have tried in vain to leave his hometown (“I thought the highway loved me, but she beat me like a drum”). But Isbell refuses to deny his character the same hope that the songwriter has found. “I’ll keep my spirits high,” he sings, “find happiness by and by—if it takes a lifetime.”

“Too many successful songwriters keep themselves isolated from people who aren’t in the music business,” Isbell points out. “They don’t know anyone else. To find things to write about, you can’t just hang around with rock stars, marry models or surround yourself with yes-men who are telling you that everything you do is genius. That’s dangerous, because it’s easier to write average stuff and believe it’s genius than it is to do the hard work and write better-than-average stuff.

“My wife and I live a normal life in a suburb of Nashville. We go to Kroger’s and go to the movies. It’s similar to the way John Prine and his wife live. We’re not surrounded by country stars. I have friends who are making it as musicians and writers, and I have friends who don’t have a job right now. If you care about people who are struggling, you can’t think that success makes you that different.”

“The Life I Chose” is narrated over a rock ‘n’ roll shuffle by a guy who lost three fingers in a factory accident. He’s now drinking up the out-of-court settlement and trying to convince a former flame to run off with him on one last doomed adventure. The album’s title track is the tale of a man who knows that the only thing worse than a bad job “loading boxes onto trucks for someone else’s sake” is no job at all. Over twangy hillbilly music, he wants to thank his God for the work, but on Sunday mornings he’s “too tired for church.”

“Palmetto Rose” takes its title from the artificial flowers that African-American women in Charleston, South Carolina, make from elaborate folds in palm leaves. The song’s narrator has one stuck in the A/C vent of his pick-up truck as Isbell’s 400 Unit plays an itchy-twitchy Southern-rock boogie beat. Every time he glances at it, the narrator knows that no matter what “bullshit story about the Civil War” you want to believe, these roses are reminders of the slave ships that pulled up to Charleston’s piers for years. And those roses are so beautiful that they’re motivation enough for the “war that we wage to get up every day.”

“Speed Trap Town” begins in a grocery store where a guilty man drops “a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart.” A woman watching him says, “It’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart,” as Isbell plays a country figure on his acoustic guitar. We’re in a town so small that it supports itself with a speed trap on the state highway, a town so small that everyone knows everyone else’s business.

“I started with that opening scene in the grocery store,” Isbell explains, “and the kind of lady who means to be helpful but always ends up being intrusive. I know that woman. The narrator obviously has a problem, but what’s the problem? As I wracked my brain, I remembered a chief of police in a town that was on 60 Minutes for being the worst speed-trap town in the nation. It was a scandal when he married my cousin’s ex-wife, because they’d been seeing each other while she was still married.

“So I said to myself, ‘What if the narrator’s father was a state trooper and wasn’t the most responsible father? What kind of realization would it take for the narrator to decide to leave that town?’ I wrote three choruses and I played the two finalists for my wife, and she said, ‘I think you know which is the best chorus.’”

If that’s one version of a parent/child relationship, “Children of Children” is a very different one. Over a Neil Young-ish acoustic-guitar riff, the narrator suddenly realizes what it meant for his mother to have a baby at 17 and raise him with little help. “You were riding on your mother’s hip,” Isbell sings; “she was shorter than the corn. All the years you took from her just by being born.”

It takes just three minutes to tell the story, but Isbell and his producer Dave Cobb added an instrumental coda that’s nearly as long. It begins with four overdubbed violins by Isbell’s wife and bandmate Amanda Shires, reinforced by two overdubbed Mellotrons by his keyboardist Derry Deborja. Then Isbell himself plays an expansive, soaring, electric slide-guitar solo.

“I first tried some David Gilmour-like guitar,” Isbell recalls, “but that didn’t work, so I tried a slide guitar solo, which is probably what I’m best at. On some level, we felt the song needed more size, to give the listener some time to chew on the lyric a bit, to make the song a little more resonant.”

Like the rest of popular music, country and rock ‘n’ roll too often limit themselves to a narrow range of topics: the ups and downs of romance, the ups and downs of intoxication, cars and trains, parties and dancing. There’s a lot more to adulthood than that. Marriage, jobs, bills, parents, children, belief, doubt, illness, learning and loss all deserve songs too. Isbell is one of the few trying to broaden the subject matter.

“These topics are underserved because they don’t make as much money,” Isbell suggests. “The labels steer artists away from those subjects, because they’re dark and not as consumable as something you can put on when you’re having a party in the backyard.

“But I want to make art, and I think that’s because I saw Patterson Hood make that decision and never back away from it. That made a big impression when I was 22 and 23. I decided I wanted to do the same thing. I think the ultimate goal is to see through another person’s eyes. When you know for a moment what it’s like to be another human being, I’ve never experienced anything more beautiful than that.”