Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
He dang sure shouldn’t be, but Jason Isbell was an afterthought on the promo stuff announcing a July 7 concert at the AMP in Northwest Arkansas.
Isbell would probably be the first to say the promo (in)consideration is not a surprise. Hell, he’d be OK with it in that good-mannered, humbled-and-elders-first Southern boy way.
The concert features Willie Nelson and Family (and one may rightfully wonder what the over-under is on Willie showing up) and the amazing package of talent and beauty that is Alison Krauss. Willie can afford to bring a good supporting sound to the stage, but if it’s been five or more years from the last time you heard Willie sing, don’t expect anywhere near the same show.
The July 7 bill does deliver authentic American talent, and Willie and Allison are respected names in the business. It’s understandable they get the press. But if you possess the slightest appreciation for the evolution of Americana music and the genealogy of American singer-songwriters (especially from the southern branch of the tree), then it is Isbell you need to see. It’s his work you should experience.
There is some power that comes from this fella from Green Hill, Alabama, who could pass from the neck up for a music minister in just about any single-front-door Southern Baptist church what ain’t yet been suckered in by the health-and-wealth shineries and vagueries of the Osteenites.
There is depth to his lyrics. He doesn’t just tell a story. He connects through a musical medium to retell in touching detail the real life highs and lows and lessons learned and mistakes repeated by folks who are the storyless ordinary only until we take the time to know them. His Americana pulse is delivered with lyrics that are intelligent, yet immediately understandable and as familiar as a deep-seated memory. The sound and imagery from Isbell and his cohorts are terrifically refreshing. His music is that first swallow of ice-cold beer after the last bale of hay is squared up in the furthest and hottest reaches of that old wasp-infested barn. They are that heavy homemade hand-me-down quilt momma puts you under when the couch and classic Looney Tunes were the prescription when you were too sick to go to school.
Isbell is a 180 from the superficial bullshit flopping from focus-grouped and spray tanned wankers produced by cookie-cutter studio machines in Nashville that need to be found and Seal Team sixed. We all know deep in our front-porch, yes-ma’am-and-no-sir-bare-feet-in-the-clover souls that much of what passes for country music these days has little to do with real life on a rural route in any southern U.S. county in which we were sweltered and swaddled.
And that’s why Isbell is different. Isbell is that country boy you knew and believed was just as good as any of that overproduced offal peddled by corporate radio hacks and cologne-infused music magazine editors who couldn’t find Muscle Shoals on a map of north Alabama.
Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle and himself a talented singer songwriter, posited an interesting point about Isbell in a May 2013 story in in the New York Times.
“You know, when I sit around and talk with Jason, he can sound, just as I can, like a dumb redneck. But put him on paper, or behind a guitar, and he can fly.”
He can fly. And he can crash. He has crashed. Hard. His newest effort, “Southeastern,” is his back-in-the saddle work. Isbell found success early during his years with Drive-By Truckers (DBT). He also rushed into every life cliche experienced by folks like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon, Merle and you know the rest. Isbell’s drinking, failed relationships and kiss-my-ass attitude resulted in his dismissal from DBT. In spite of his troubles, he delivered three decent solo albums prior to his inspired “Southeastern” work.
Isbell cranks out great southern rock riffs, but one of his first impressive lyrical efforts came during his years with DBT. It was a somber song about a sad heart.
“I got green and I got blues and everyday there's a little less difference between the two.
So I belly-up and disappear. Well I ain't really drowning 'cause I see the beach from here.
“I could take a Greyhound home but when I got there it'd be gone along with everything a home is made up of.
So I'll take two of what you're having and I'll take all of what you got to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love.”
In the rocking “Never Gonna Change,” also from his DBT years, Isbell pulled in honest yet uncomfortable imagery from the rural south:
“Daddy used to empty out his shotgun shells and fill 'em full of black-eyed peas.
He'd aim real low and tear out your ankles or rip right through your knees.”
That ain't exactly the “let's get on a country road on a Saturday night in a big truck with our girlfriends and drink a cold one and say ‘hell yeah’ for ‘Merica" silliness seen and heard frequently now that the brain damaged have been placed in charge of the fancy music awards shows.
The unique imagery continues on “Southeastern.” Isbell sings in “Cover Me Up”:
“So girl leave your boots by the bed/we ain't leavin' this room
Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.
It's cold in this house and I ain't goin' out to chop wood.
So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.”
Grab your boots or whatever is by your bed and see Isbell come July 7. You may want to arrive early at the AMP. This is one concert in which the best may not be saved for last.