I don’t remember why the alarm was set but it went off one weekend morning. The station, of course, was WNYC and the show that was starting was about Jason Isbell. I’ve since gone back to find that the show was The New Yorker Radio Hour in which John Seabrook talks to Isbell. The first song played is “Cover Me Up.”
A heart on the run keeps its hand on a gun
You can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more
Tried to shoot out the sun
I was hooked. I sat up (figuratively) and tried not to fall back asleep but also not let on to my wife that I was awake and should be getting ready for whatever we had set the alarm.
That radio show led me to Southeastern, Isbell’s 2013 album — which starts with “Cover Me Up” — and then to Something More Than Free, his 2015 Grammy-winning follow-up. It was one of those great moments when you feel like you are being let in on a secret, discovering something that is going to make your life better, and it is going to make you evangelize about it. It made me think of 1998 when I read an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and discovered Lucinda Williams. These are the moments when the universe seems to be clicking into place for your benefit.
At the time I was just getting into those two Isbell albums, I didn’t know that a new album was coming out in June. I didn’t know about Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, and I was only dimly aware of Isbell’s work as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. (And when I say dimly aware I mean I had heard of the Drive-By Truckers but didn’t know any of their songs, with or without Isbell.) A new album, and a tour that would bring Isbell to the Beacon Theater. Everything clicking into place.
The new album is The Nashville Sound. Unlike Southeastern and Something More Than Free, the 400 Unit gets billing on the album for the first time since 2011’s Here We Rest. The result is the excellent songwriting that you’d expect from Isbell, and songs that go from the more stripped down music of the previous two albums and the harder songs that would not be out-of-place on a Drive-By Truckers album.
The album begins with three songs situated squarely in the South — “Last of My Kind” about a person from Arkansas, “Cumberland Gap”, and “Tupelo”. Isbell’s songwriting is so personal and often autobiographical that it causes a minor panic when he sings in “Tupelo” about not having been wasted in a long time, but drinking wine.
Isbell’s lyrically economy is more than enough to convey as sense of place.
Daddy said the river would always lead me home
But the river can’t take me back in time
And Daddy’s dead and gone
The family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s five and dime
– “Last of My Kind”
As soon as the sun goes down
I find my way to the Mustang Lounge
And if you don’t sit facing the windows
You could be in any town
– “Cumberland Gap”
I get out of this hole I’m going to Tupelo
There’s a girl down there that will treat me fair
You get about a week of spring and then summer is blistering
There ain’t no one from here that will follow me there
Those opening songs lead you to believe that the album will be an extended tour of the South featuring narrators that may or may not exactly be Isbell, and then he pulls the rug out.
“White Man’s World” explores white privilege. Some long-time Isbell fans apparently feel betrayed by the song but that only tells me they never noticed what was implicit in Isbell’s music until it became explicit. The second verse is where the album’s name comes from.
I’m a white man living in a white man’s town
Want to take a shot of cocaine and burn it down
Momma wants to change that Nashville sound
But they’re never gonna let her
What can we infer from this? I’m not sure, except that maybe The Nashville Sound is ironic, that Isbell and others, including us, can change that sound. It’s an effort that Isbell addresses in the chorus.
There’s no such thing as someone else’s war
Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate
The inward turn of the album continues on “If We Were Vampires”, a beautiful song about the gift of being with someone and knowing time is precious, which makes it all more meaningful. If my wife and I were having a ceremony to renew our vows I would make this our song. “Anxiety” follows and again you assume that Isbell himself is the narrator, wondering why he can’t be happy even in the presence of his wife and child. And “Molotov” features a narrator who once wanted to live hard until the end, until he burned out like a Molotov, but instead found someone to ride with him and make him want to live. The narrator sings about breaking promises to himself and then making some to a brown-eyed girl. He asks her if she misses the girl “she once had time to be”, which just about sums up getting older as well as any lyric could. (Plus, “Molotov” is a nice companion to Southeastern‘s “Traveling Alone.”)
“Chaos and Clothes” has been compared to the work of Elliot Smith and I’ll have to take everyone’s word for it as I don’t know the work of Elliot Smith. It’s another Isbell song that deals with the most Southern of themes, of the past not really being past. If there is a unifying thread to The Nashville Sound, maybe that’s it. The Nashville Sound is an album about where we are at this moment, caught between the past, the present, and the future. “Hope the High Road” is a song about trying to let the past go, about acknowledging that we are in a difficult moment at this time, but that we are in it together and that will be our salvation. Don’t despair.
There can’t be more of them than us
There can’t be more
And the album ends with a wish for his daughter, in which Isbell hopes she finds “Something to Love.” Isbell sings about learning to sing and play guitar, and when he sings that he hopes his daughter finds something to do “when you feel like giving up” you can’t help but think that music is what saved Isbell.
I did see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Beacon Theater, with his wife Amanda Shires as the opening act. It was an excellent show which featured much of The Nashville Sound as well as classics from Drive-By Truckers as well as from his previous albums. The show ended with “Whipping Post”, an appropriate song given the venue, where weed smoke from countless Allman shows is as integral to the structure as brick and steel, and given the influence on the Allman Brothers of Muscle Shoals, where Isbell grew up and where Duane Allman was a studio musician before joining his brother Gregg and forming the band.