The term “savior” is thrown about all too often in the music world. Kendrick Lamar is called the “savior” of lyrical rap, Greta Van Fleet is often called the “savior” of Rock n’ Roll, and Chris Stapleton has often been called the “savior” country music. It’s only the final label, though, which we will discuss today, but I would attach it to someone far more deserving: Jason Isbell.
Jason Isbell is an Americana/Country artist based in Nashville Tennessee. He got his start with The Drive-By Truckers, outlaw country royalty in their own right, but was kicked out of the band after a three album stint, due to serious drug and alcohol problems which made him a nightmare to work with. From there, he released one more solo effort to lukewarm reception before entering rehab for alcoholism.
It was after his admittance, however, that he began to shine. He married his then girlfriend, and fellow country songstress, Amanda Shires, and she joined him on his best record, Southeastern. He went on to put out one more solo project, as well as three hits with his newly formed band, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.
So, why do we care? Of course, it goes without saying that there’s not a bad album in the bunch, and that his long and illustrious career holds tremendous value to anyone interested in country music, particularly the recent outlaw movement, as his work mostly pre-dates contemporaries like Stapleton, Musgraves, or Simpson. But the question we need to answer is whether Isbell holds any importance to the average music fan, and to the music industry as a whole. So let me make my case for why Jason Isbell matters.
The first important point to make, as alluded to before, is the history of his career. Not only did he work with probably the most important Southern Rock act of the early 2000’s in the Truckers, but he worked with them on two of their best albums to date. Even in the presence of giants, so to speak, his writing stands head and shoulders above his band-mates, especially on tracks like “Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love.” Even after leaving the group, his solo work, and records with The 400 Unit are of a higher quality, and receive more critical praise than any other album in the genre, almost without fail. Isbell has been at the very forefront of Country music throughout two major era’s now, and that is truly rare. But why is that? I would say that it all has to do with his understanding of not only the genre he’s writing in, but the culture he’s writing about and for.
See, Country music as a whole aims toward a fairly specific, and rapidly aging demographic. Chiefly, the hardworking, blue collar men and women of Middle and Southern America. Tracks like “Last of My Kind,” and “Tupelo,” on his newest record seem to address these people directly, bemoaning the exclusion he faced as a young man, unable to fit in outside of this world.
This is also, by all accounts of current events, a dying breed of people. The world economy is leaving once booming industries like coal mining in the dust, and recent influx of people living in larger cities has meant that blue-collar America has also lost their grip on the zeitgeist of modern culture. Gone are the days of Westerns in the theatre and Willie on the radio. Instead, superheroes battle in New York City to dominate the box office, and the music industry favors industrial genre’s like rap and rock. Some artists have chosen to ignore this, and continue writing as they always have for smaller audiences. Others water down their messaging to appeal to those who’ve never lived the life they sing about. Still others recognize this shift, but fight it and blame others. Jason is one of the very few to take a different path.
Perhaps the best way to explain this is to compare two songs. Lets look at Toby Keith’s “55 Mile an Hour Town,” contrasted with Jason’s “Speed Trap Town.” Both deal with the same issue: a grown man returns from life on the road to the one-horse town from whence he came. He’s greeted by a single mothers, as his father has passed away, but they seem bewildered by the fact that this small town isn’t the same as they left it, but here’s where the differences are found.
Toby blames this on the world changing. Chiefly, the lack of God in schools, the trend of less parents spanking their kids, the shifting demographics, and violence shown on television today. To quote the song itself, “Spare the rod and you will sour this 55 mile an hour town.” Toby seems to think that the world has changed beneath his feet, but Jason would disagree.
See, in “Speed Trap Town,” Isbell makes it clear from the first lines that he’s the one who has changed. This is not to be confused with saying that he’s the one who is flawed, but rather that he’s finally old enough to see the flaws in his home town, his late father, and his childhood as a whole. Put simply, Toby Keith, and others like him, tend to prop up a false image of the blue collar culture, that of a simpler, more pure world which is being mercilessly destroyed by the godlessness of modern society. Isbell, on the other hand, performs an autopsy of the culture he came from, and attempts to see what good may be salvageable, while ruthlessly bringing light to its weaknesses.
Tracks like “White Man’s World,” “Children of Children,” and the aforementioned “Speed Trap Town,” criticize Southern and Midwestern cultures’ tendencies toward racism, teen pregnancy, and infidelity. Even in his earliest writing with the Truckers, this is present. “Decoration Day,” speaks on the glorification of violence and tribalism while “Outfit,” wonderfully dismantles notions of toxic masculinity. Even Southeastern, though its the more personal album in the discography, touches heavily on the substance abuse and alcoholism which runs rampant in these areas.
It would be wrong, however, to say that Jason sees no good in this culture. “Something More Than Free,” praises the work ethic which is ingrained within these people, while “’68 Cadillac” and “Cover Me Up,” speak to the strength of southern women. Above all “Molotov,” and “If We Were Vampires,” give a glimpse at the focus on love and family which is so strong in this culture.
Country music, and the culture which accompanies it, faces a massive challenge. The world is changing, and it threatens to leave quite a bit behind. The genre, on the whole, has seemed to ignore this challenge, either by doubling down on their outdatedness, or by watering down their message and sound so much that nothing “country” remains. They do this, in my opinion, because they’re afraid of the challenge. They think that, should they face it head on, they may find that there is nothing of this once great culture which can stand the test of the new world.
Jason Isbell disproves that. He simultaneously shows us what’s great about the country culture, while fearlessly pointing out its flaws. He seeks to distill the true power of Country music, while removing all remnants of imperfections, and this may be the only way to see this genre survive. That is why Jason Isbell matters.
HEAR JASON ISBELL: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3Q8wgwyVVv0z4UEh1HB0KY