Why I Listen to Jason Isbell

We were sitting in a shed with a life-sized poster of Clint Eastwood, a couple lamps, a table with a cribbage set, and what not. It was a cold night, and over the hum of the little heater Josh said, “You gotta hear this guy.” That was about three years ago, I think, and I’ve been listening to Jason Isbell nonstop ever since.

The album I heard that night was Southeastern. For the next few months, when I would tell people about it, the word I kept using was haunting. The lyrics and melodies just stuck and would play in the back of my mind, but not in that “gotta get this song out of my head” sort of way. The album is dark, but it’s a darkness you can’t help but stare into — dark woods on a snowy night.

I immediately loved Something More than Free. Again, it was Josh Monroe that played the first song for me — 24 Frames. I remember standing outside my apartment and tossing around ideas about what “24 frames” might refer to. That’s another thing about his lyrics. They’re frequently so descriptive yet just vague enough to set your mind running in a couple different directions. Is he telling this story or that one? I love standing in the driveway with friends and having those debates.

His newest album is The Nashville Sound, and it is yet another homerun. You should really check out this CBS interview if you haven’t yet. The first song released was “If We Were Vampires,” and it is so hard to listen to. I have a wife, a four year old boy, and a two year old girl, and the picture this song paints is so beautiful but so real that it hurts. It might be the most beautiful thing Isbell has written, but it’s also like the grass in C. S. Lewis’ Great Divorce. If you aren’t in just the right state of being, it pierces. The song is inspired by the thought that one of the things that makes our relationships so sweet is the fact that time is ticking and they won’t last forever. Good grief, Jason.

There isn’t a song on the new album I don’t like. “Anxiety” has a verse I can’t get away from:

Watchin’ the sunrise slice through the blinds
Dust in the room hovers over my eyes
I kneel in silence
Wife and child still sleepin’ deep enough to dream
I know I’m a lucky man today
But I’m so afraid that time will take it all from me

Earlier this year, I discovered Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate. I was slowly making my way down Shelbyville Road listening to Louisville’s WFPK when I heard “Black Man in a White World.” The driving, incessant rhythm of that song reminded me of the music I heard in the villages of West Africa ten years ago. Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate is like something from another era. When friends would come over, I would play it for them, and it was like we stepped through the wardrobe into the place and time of true soul. That first song stuck with me, and when I heard Isbell’s “White Man in a White World” I thought about Kiwanuka. A couple days later a friend emailed me and said the same thing. Joseph wrote, “New song is a ‘tipped-hat’ to Michael Kiwanuka.” Whether it is intentionally a tipped-hat or not, I’m glad I’m not the only one that hears it. If Michael Kiwanuka is a modern incarnation of true soul, Jason Isbell is the spirit of true country apparated and baptized into the twenty-first century. Sometimes great music doesn’t fit into any one specific genre. Isbell’s doesn’t, and that’s another aspect of its intrigue.

The other night around the fire pit I described it like this: What I love about Jason Isbell’s music is that at one and the same time I feel safe with him, but I never know what he is going to say. He often sings my soul but does so in ways that catch me off guard and set my mind to wandering and wondering for days or weeks or months.