Drinking almost killed him; then it became his great subject
April 28, 2020 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Jason Isbell’s Redemption Songs (GQ): A decade after bottoming out and cleaning up, Jason Isbell has become the last of his kind: a guitar-playing, compulsively honest, relentlessly consistent songwriter. Oh, and he slays on Twitter too. Zach Baron goes to Isbell's family home near Franklin, Tennessee, and finds there's no question the four-time Grammy winner won't answer.
posted by not_the_water (27 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
"In a room, by myself
looks like I'm here with a guy
that I judge worse than anyone else

So I pace, and I pray
and I repeat the mantras that might
keep me clean for the day.."
Jason Isbell, Songs that She Sang in the Shower
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:28 AM on April 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

I heard enough of the “White Mans’ Blues”
Sung enough about myself
So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere else
Last year was a sonofabitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road.

I know you’re tired and you aint sleeping well
Uninspired, and likely mad as Hell
But wherever you are I hope the High Road leads you home again
-J.I. & the 400 Unit, “Hope The High Road
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:50 AM on April 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

Songs that She Sang in the Shower

"the frost on the ground must envy the frost on the trees"

what an incredible line
posted by thelonius at 12:32 PM on April 28, 2020 [7 favorites]

I could talk about Jason Isbell all day and I'm nowhere near his biggest fan. But to me he's the best living American songwriter, inheriting the mantle from John Prine, with whom Isbell was very close. (His daughter calls him "Uncle John.") Recently on Twitter some guy did a "here's the best 30 Jason Isbell songs" and I thought, "this is good" and another guy came along with another list, maybe half in common, and I thought "no, this is good" and so it went for a half-dozen lists.

Last May I was in Nashville with my family and by sheer luck he was at City Winery as part of a benefit for a kids' music program, him and Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh and Mark Stewart and several other Nashvilleans. They did a "guitar mash," where they each picked two favorite songs and talked about them and played -- and everyone had been invited to bring their own guitars and play along, with the tabs put up on big screens. (Isbell played Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" and oh yes, both were terrific.) Watching my 13-year-old son play along with him is an all-time favorite memory.

Afterward he came out and my niece, knowing I'm a fan, dragged me over to him and I babbled something thanking him for "Children of Children," my favorite, and thankfully I got the hell out of the way, and Isbell talked with my son for a while about guitars and technique. Terrific guy.

PS yeah he's great on Twitter. On a post about the GQ article, some trollish dudebro commented on the fancy clothes and said (iirc) "you look like a lesbian." Isbell's reply: "I wish."
posted by martin q blank at 12:54 PM on April 28, 2020 [14 favorites]

Here we sit
Pretending both our hearts are anchors
Taking candy from these strangers
Amidst the diesel and the dust
And here we sit
Singing words nobody taught us
Drinking fire, and spitting sawdust,
Trying to teach ourselves to breathe
We haven't yet,
But every chorus brings us closer
Every flyer and every poster
Gives a piece of what we need
And the sand that they call cocaine cost you twice as much as gold
You'd be better off to drink your coffee black
But I swear, the land it listened to the stories that we told
God bless the busted boat that brings us back

New South Wales

I sobered up a few years after Isbell did. Southeastern was my soundtrack for that year. Still is, at times.
posted by not_the_water at 1:09 PM on April 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

While we're quoting Isbell songs, the passage about the busted air conditioner in "Alabama Pines" always slays me:

Well I moved into this room (if you could call it that) a week ago
I never do what I'm supposed to do
Hardly even know my name any more
When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away

And I can't get to sleep at night, the parking lot's so loud and bright
The A/C hasn't worked in twenty years
Probably never made a single person cold
But I can't say the same for me, I've done it many times

Somebody take me home
Through those Alabama pines

posted by HillbillyInBC at 1:27 PM on April 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

“I just set my alarm. For 12:45pm. Teach your kids about Rock n Roll.”
- Jason Isbell

“Set my alarm. For 6:45am. Teach your kids about birth control.”
- Patterson Hood, in reply
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:51 PM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh, sure, have price tags and brand names for the suits and shirts and pants and glasses. Where are the chicken details????
posted by Cozybee at 1:59 PM on April 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

As a recovering Alkie, people like Sturgill Simpson, Nathaniel Rateliff, Chris Stapleton seem to be writing songs specifically for me.

I am so glad that they got sober and did not go along the way of thinking that somehow alcohol helps fire the muse. Leslie Jamison wrote movingly about this in Recovering.
posted by indianbadger1 at 3:36 PM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Have a seat, have a drink, tell the jury what you think
Was I good to you?
Was it hell, was it fun, did you think I was the one
Was I glued to you?
Now that I found someone who makes me wanna live
Does that make my leaving harder to forgive?

Teach me how to forget, replace the character set
Teach me how to unlearn a lesson
Teach me how to forget, 'cause I ain't sorry just yet
Teach me how to unlearn a lesson

So brutal and beautiful.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:38 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Isbell's great, but “last of his kind” is hyperbolic at best. American Aquarium’s BJ Barnum, the aforementioned Sturgill Simpson, Tim Barry, Two Cow Garage’s Micah Schnabel, Possessed By Paul James’s Konrad Wert... add your own.

We may be short on a lot of things these days, but America ain’t running out of the “guitar-playing, compulsively honest, relentlessly consistent songwriter” type anytime soon.
posted by genehack at 3:58 PM on April 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Cozybee, I believe he said on Twitter it's one of his/his family's chickens, so it's probably not for sale. But if you want a hen, I can get you a hen, I know people.

I think my iTunes statistics would argue that James McMurtry is America's greatest living songwriter, with Isbell a close second, but that's like arguing are cats better than dogs. Both are amazing in different ways.
posted by wintermind at 4:16 PM on April 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

ecently on Twitter some guy did a "here's the best 30 Jason Isbell songs" and I thought, "this is good" and another guy came along with another list, maybe half in common, and I thought "no, this is good"

Links, please!

Back in the late 90s, I was getting into "Alt-country, whatever that is", and driving a lot for work. Seemed like every other week, some song would make me pull off the road through the tears or at least, the gasping shock of human recognition. Son Volt. Whiskeytown. Townes Van Zandt. Calexico. Then the job petered out, or I ran out of top-shelf, or life happened. My emotional calluses had me wondering if I *could* even have one of those moments again.

Then I was driving across Kansas and Isbell's "Elephant" came on, and I thought I was gonna have a heart attack.

Goddamn, this guy is so good.
posted by notsnot at 5:40 PM on April 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

During the quarantine he has been appearing on YouTube with his wife Amanda Shines who is a fantastic musician in her own right. Check out I So Lounging.
posted by procrastination at 5:58 PM on April 28, 2020

This video for "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" brought me to tears the first time I saw it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:30 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Jason Isbell leads Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" at Nashville Urban Campfire

Hey, thanks, MonkeyToes! That was the thing I mentioned! You can get the barest glimpse of me and my family at 5:35 and right at the very end. Sadly we're on the wrong side of the room, so we're barely visible...
posted by martin q blank at 7:21 PM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Links, please!

Notsnot, here you go...

apparently this is in reference to some Uproxx article that tried and failed to do the same thing. of course he failed too by omitting "Children" and putting "Vampires" and "Alabma Pines" too low. :) he also turned the list into a Spotify playlist, if you do that streaming thing.
posted by martin q blank at 7:35 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I...have thoughts about that list. "Songs That She Sang in the Shower","Flying Over Water", and "Tupelo" are too low and "24 Frames" is too high. Also, the list lacks "Super 8", which needs to be on there so that it can be put last, it being the least interesting Isbell song of all. And I think that each of us would have a completely different ranking, and that's delightful!
posted by wintermind at 7:44 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Love both Prine and Isbell, they can both cut you with the simplest phrases. The one think I don't get from JI like I did from JP is the sense of humor. (But still the man has a way with images) - Also how is it that rock has the 27 club and "country" (in various forms) has these stories of redemption (Cash, Prine - to a certain extent, Earle, etc)
posted by drewbage1847 at 11:14 PM on April 28, 2020

Drewbage1847, maybe Isbell's humor (see "I wish", above) is a little more low-key, a little less of a show-car, on account of his alcoholism.
posted by notsnot at 5:28 AM on April 29, 2020

Aw, I love these guys ... I've been re-listening to Prine since Tree of Forgiveness came out and loving how held these songs make me feel, and Isbell is definitely in that vein (although less with the wordplay, I think).

But guys, GUYS, there are women out there doing amazing shit, too:

Hurray for the Riffraff, Alynda Segarra's band:


And Brittany Howard is a whole other kettle of transcendent fish:


Thanks so much for this!!
posted by allthinky at 5:51 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

I did not expect Neutral Milk Hotel to be mentioned in a Jason Isbell interview, but I like it.
posted by catoclock at 6:03 AM on April 29, 2020

Isbell's great, but “last of his kind” is hyperbolic at best.

It's a reference to one of his (imo one of his worst) songs. The grandfather (if you include punk) Jay Farrar just released an album last year.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:21 AM on April 29, 2020

If you like Isbell, I'd recommend Kenny Foster, who is in Isbell's songwriting and geographic orbit. A lot of his music is about extracting positivity from strife, and while he isn't drawing on depths quite as low as the depressions and past that motivate Isbell, it's really very engaging. I like Isbell because he helps me appreciate pain, I like Foster because he helps me feel better.
posted by hank_14 at 11:26 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Jason Isbell, "Goddamn Lonely Love." Breaks my damn heart.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:47 PM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

“At first I thought this song would be a song of heterosexual country love. And then one day I was on the elliptical... ‘cause Imma cowboy, and that’s my steel horse. And then it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe Brandi Carlisle would sing this song, and then it could be a gay country song. And so then we wrote it from that perspective, me and Amanda and her friend Chris Thompkins of Nashville Tennessee.

And me, what I hadn’t thought about is we’re gonna have to take this song to Brandi Carlisle, and... I’m not gay, not all the way. And so I thought This is kinda like taking my civil rights movie to Spike Lee.
The Highwomen (and their dear friend Jason Isbell), “If She Ever Leaves Me”
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:29 PM on May 4, 2020

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