Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jason Isbell's Southeastern Gem

We've all heard the tragic tales of the singer/songwriter/musicians who finds their muses in alcohol or other mind-altering substances. The all-star list of the tragically lost includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Harry Nilsson, and Amy Winehouse. Too rarely do we learn of an artist who has the personal courage to overcome addictions and grow as an artist. So, I joyfully celebrate in this post someone who has  faced and conquered his addiction to create some his best and most deeply honest work.

As I wrote in a previous Audio-didact post  I have been a fan of the music of the Drive-By Truckers for many years. What I did not share at that time was the concern I felt about the conspicuous amount of drinking that the band engaged in onstage, seemingly as part of their show, when I saw them perform in 2004.  Early in the evening, I thought it was kind of cool that the band members were symbolically sharing a bottle of liquor.  Before long I hoped the bottle of Jack Daniels that was still being passed around was just a prop.  Several hours later, as my co-blogger and friend Fletcher McNeill and I left the show,  the band was still "performing," but doing so poorly, and the band members seemed to be, for wont of better term, not themselves.

It was through the DBT's music, that I became introduced to Jason Isbell's playing, singing, and songwriting. In Reviewing Southeastern, Isbell's new solo album, Paste's Jerrick Adams rightly points out that while not many of Isbell's songs made it onto DBT albums during the six years he played with them, those that did are great songs. Adams point out that among the eight that made it onto DBT albums during that time are "'Outfit,' 'Decoration Day' and 'Goddamn Lonely Love' ... so good that they rank toward the top of not just Isbell’s discography, but DBT’s as well."

Jason Isbell was born in Greenhill, in northern Alabama near Muscle Shoals, in 1979. Outside of his immediate family, most of his family members were musicians. Isbell became interested in becoming a musician at a young age. He was married to the DBT bassist Shonna Tucker during most of the time he played with DBT. The two are now divorced. In February 2013, Isbell married songwriter Amanda Shires, who helped him get sober

Throughout Southeastern, Isbell deals with drinking, loss, pain, and love.  His writing has not lost any of its edge.  If anything, the edge with which he writes is even sharper.  Consider, for example, this segment of lyrics to "Elephant":

She said Andy you're better than your past,
winked at me and drained her glass,
cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore.

She said Andy you're taking me home,
but I knew she planned to sleep alone.
I'd carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from her floor

Southeastern is an incredibly personal and powerful album.  I find myself thinking a great deal about its stories.

Here is a video of Isbell performing Southeastern's "Stockholm" on the Letterman Show from July 23, 2013:

Isbell was also recently featured on NPR's Fresh Air.  What a terrific album, and what an inspiring personal story.

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