BOOTS AND BACKBONE
Jason Isbell and the rising stars of the alt-country sound.
Country rock (or Americana, or alt- country), has a history scattered with stories so Gothic and southern and tragic, Tennessee Williams would have rejected them as too overblown.
Start with Gram Parsons, who in his early 20s persuaded the Byrds – almost as hot as the Beatles at the time – to record the first true country rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in 1968. Gothic? Parsons’ father, whose nickname was “Coon Dog”, killed himself with a shotgun when Gram was 12. In 1973, Parsons died of a morphine and alcohol overdose. His road manager, Phil Kaufman, stole the body, took it into California’s Joshua Tree desert, and cremated it, fulfilling, he said, a pact he’d made with Parsons.
Think of Florida’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, at the height of their career when a 1977 Mississippi plane crash killed three in the band, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt. Or guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band dying in a motorbike crash in Macon, Georgia, in 1971, and how, a year and two weeks later, the band’s bassist Berry Oakley also died in a motorbike accident, three blocks from where Allman had his fatal crash.
For a time, it seemed Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, born and raised in Alabama, might be joining the tragic roll call. Isbell was just 22 when he joined great southern band Drive-by Truckers in 2001. He knew his parents were worried. “I wasn’t even from a small town,” he said. “We lived in the country.” So he wrote a song, “Outfit”, that he played to his father before he went on the road.
Later recorded with the Truckers, and purporting to be his father’s advice to him, it was a beautiful mix of heartfelt and tonguein-cheek: “Have fun” was followed by “Stay clear of the needle”, which was followed by “Call home on
your sister’s birthday”.
But on tour, alcohol and cocaine quickly became a major part of his lifestyle, and after the break-up of his marriage to the band’s bass player, Shona Tucker, he found himself, in 2012, checking into a rehab centre in Memphis, urged to do so by a musician who’d fought his own demons, Ryan Adams. Now remarried to another musician and songwriter, Amanda Shires, Isbell is a star on the rise, selling out 19,000-seat arenas with his band the 400 Unit on a recent American tour.
Is the attention being paid to him deserved? Absolutely. His latest album, The Nashville Sound, is probably his best, which is remarkable considering the one before, Something More Than Free, in 2015 won him a Grammy for best Americana album.
The title The Nashville Sound is a sly dig at most of the music being made in the country-music capital. Isbell exists outside the manufactured, manicured sounds that usually top country charts, the hat acts who look the part but are cynically referred to by Nashville insiders as being “all boots, no backbone”. You could never imagine Garth Brooks writing a love song, as Isbell does, called “If We Were Vampires”, which is buoyed by a truly beautiful melody.
“If we had a permanent time on the Earth, we wouldn’t have the motivation to pursue anything,” Isbell told Paste magazine. “Time is a limited commodity, and if it weren’t, I’m not sure we would work up the courage to love anybody or to make art. If you have limitless time, you can always say, ‘I’ll say that tomorrow; I don’t need to do it today.’”
The chorus of “Vampires” runs like this: “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/maybe we’ll get 40 years together/ But one day I’ll be gone/ Or one day you’ll be gone.” Yet, oddly, the effect is more touching than depressing.
And if a counterweight to musing on mortality is needed, try “Something to Love”, written for his and Shires’ baby daughter, Mercy. “I hope you find something to love/something to do when you feel like giving up/a song to sing, or a tale to tell/something to love/it’ll serve you well.”
If your tastes run to the sort of heartfelt roots music so brilliantly written and played by Isbell, then set aside as much time as possible for the Southern Fork Americana Fest at Auckland’s Tuning Fork, which runs October 7-15.
The fantastic line-up includes Justin Townes Earle, whose gifts have moved him out of the considerable shadow of his father, Steve Earle. Son Volt, one of the original alt- country bands that recently re-formed with founder Jay Farrar and released a new album Notes of Blue, will play, as will the quirky Robbie Fulks, who once wrote a song called “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died”.
A critics’ favourite, Fulks is a versatile singer whose music since he began recording solo in the 1990s can swing from the folky feel of last year’s Upland Stories to – I’m not making this up – a surprisingly listenable album of Michael Jackson covers. Called Happy, it includes what amounts to a bluegrass breakdown in “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”. Fulks says he wanted to help make people hear that Jackson was not just a tabloid headline, but a hugely gifted songwriter.
Raised in North Carolina, but based for two decades in Chicago, Fulks has always been too unpredictable and drawn to often-brilliant-but-weird lyrics for mainstream success. When he plays it straight, he’s riveting. “I Just Want to Meet the Man”, in which the song’s narrator confronts his estranged wife with obviously murderous intent, would have been right at home on the dark, late- career albums Johnny Cash recorded with Rick Rubin.
If you can only see one performer at this festival, Fulks should be the one. +
Robbie Fulks once wrote a song called “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died”.