Ja­son Is­bell: Cal­iban and the South­ern Man

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - Email: pmartin@arkansason­line.com blood­dirtan­gels.com

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give de­light and hurt not. Some­times a thou­sand twan­gling in­stru­ments

Will hum about mine ears ….

— Cal­iban de­scrib­ing his is­land to Stephano

in Shake­speare’s The Tem­pest Ja­son Is­bell looks like a lot of his fans, and has one of those un­re­pen­tant Alabama ac­cents.

In some cir­cles that makes him sus­pect and if you live within this news­pa­per’s cir­cu­la­tion zone, maybe you’ve felt that kind of sus­pi­cion too. It is rel­a­tively safe to stereo­type South­ern­ers, es­pe­cially South­ern white males who at­tended public schools and land grant uni­ver­si­ties or ju­nior col­leges or sim­ply went to work. Even if we are of them, we might think less of them than we do the eru­dite and ur­bane, the mul­ti­cul­tured and the os­ten­ta­tiously tol­er­ant.

We can’t help it. On our is­land we grew up with images of Bull Con­ner and Ge­orge Wal­lace stand­ing in the

schoolhouse door. We were the vil­lains in the Rosa Parks story. We’ve heard ugly talk ac­cepted as nor­mal. We’ve seen thou­sands of it­er­a­tions of the mur­der­ous red­neck and the tooth­less goober on our screens. Art re­flects life that im­i­tates art. The South­ern cul­ture of griev­ance is strong, and even if you’re At­ti­cus Finch the ol’ boys work­ing on your deck might not be sport­ing equal­ity stick­ers on their F-150s.

Some of us want to be­lieve that it’s all a ques­tion of en­light­en­ment, that all this trib­al­ism comes down to ig­no­rance and fear and that if more of us mixed and min­gled and made ba­bies with more of them, the great hip­pie kum­baya dream might come down af­ter all. Maybe I’m not that op­ti­mistic. Evo­lu­tion takes a long time and his­tory is more cyclic than up­ward.

I don’t think Ja­son Is­bell rep­re­sents any sort of New South­ern Man. But that doesn’t mean he’s not im­por­tant.

Is­bell is as im­por­tant as any singer of folk songs can be th­ese days, when mu­sic mat­ters less than it did in the ’60s and ’70s (the wheel’s near the bot­tom, and maybe stuck). He’s about as close as we’re go­ing to get to a singer-song­writer su­per­star. Is­bell is singing and writ­ing songs that feel deeply rel­e­vant to our mod­ern con­di­tion. And by our, I mean (mostly) my kind, those of us who be­long to a sus­pect class, who might just feel a lit­tle de­fen­sive.

He has a new al­bum, a band record this time, which promi­nently fea­tures The 400 Unit, which con­sists of bassist Jimbo Hart, drum­mer Chad Gam­ble, key­boardist Derry deBorja, lead gui­tarist Sadler Vaden and Amanda Shires, Is­bell’s singer-song­writer wife who con­trib­utes fid­dle and har­mony vo­cals. The al­bum is called The Nashville Sound (South­east­ern) and I’ll ad­mit that at first I didn’t like it as much as Is­bell’s last al­bum, 2015’s Some­thing More Than Free or his 2013 record South­east­ern (both solo records). But that was mainly be­cause I didn’t quite hear the record the first cou­ple of trips through.

It fea­tures one of the great­est love songs I’ve ever heard. Is­bell is a tight and clever writer, who rarely de­faults to the first easy rhyme yet man­ages to re­main in the work­ing-class char­ac­ter he has as­sumed. While al­bum opener “The Last of My Kind” flirts with cliche as it un­spools its lonely-yet-pride­ful-coun­try-boy-in-thecity tale, it’s re­deemed by Is­bell’s eye for sig­nif­i­cant de­tail:

“No­body here can dance like me, every­body clap­pin’ on the one and the three,” he boasts, be­fore wor­ry­ing the ti­tle ques­tion.

He first came to promi­nence as the hot­shot young gui­tar slinger in the Drive-By Truck­ers, one of those re­mark­ably fluid play­ers who seemed at home in a num­ber of id­ioms. He’s an es­pe­cially adept slide player who, like Bon­nie Raitt, plays with the slide on his mid­dle fin­ger, al­low­ing him to fret notes in front of the slide, in­clud­ing ex­plo­sive hard-rock shred­ding. That he has de­vel­oped into an artist pri­mar­ily known for lyric-driven -mid­dle-tempo songs that fea­ture acous­tic gui­tars is in­ter­est­ing. There’s a sim­i­lar di­chotomy in Neil Young’s work, though Young’s ap­proach to lyric writ­ing is more ex­pres­sion­is­tic and less pre­cise than Is­bell’s. Is­bell has been threat­en­ing

to make a gui­tar-cen­tric record.

“I think that would be a whole lot of fun for me,” he told Sa­lon.com. “Be­cause I have to be so damn taste­ful all the time when I’m play­ing my own songs, and work­ing on this lyric-and-melody-driven ca­reer that I’ve set up for my­self. Some­times it’s re­ally nice just to be a ridicu­lous … gui­tar player.”

You hear a lit­tle of that in the riffy, noisy, Spring­stee­nesque “Cum­ber­land Gap,” a bleak story about a young Ap­palachian man’s in­abil­ity to achieve es­cape ve­loc­ity:

I thought about mov­ing


But what would my mama


I’m all that she has left and I’m with her ev­ery day As soon as the sun goes


I find my way to the Mus­tang Lounge

And if you don’t sit fac­ing

the win­dow

You could be in any town “White Man’s World” is maybe a bit on the nose and mi­nor Is­bell, though prob­a­bly the best anal­ogy might be the top­i­cal protest songs Bob Dy­lan scratched out in the early ’60s be­fore he started chas­ing af­ter Rim­baud and Ver­laine. There’s some­thing earnest about Is­bell’s plea here, and the line about wish­ing he’d never let a racist re­mark pass with­out speak­ing up will res­onate with a lot of white men. It also alien­ated at least a few of Is­bell’s fans, who’d rather he not chal­lenge their po­lit­i­cal as­sump­tions with his mu­sic. (Though last week Is­bell tweeted, “The Nashville Sound just had the best week of any al­bum we’ve ever made. So much for alien­at­ing half my au­di­ence by speak­ing my mind.” Point taken.)

And “If We Were Vam­pires” is a re­mark­able, ma­ture and dark love song, one likely to crush the heart of any­one in a long-term re­la­tion­ship. It ex­plores the in­evitable arc of an af­fair, the re­al­iza­tion that “till death do us part” is not just the boil­er­plate in the con­tract

but some­thing nearly in­evitable. This too shall pass, even though your love makes her shim­mer­ing voice a cush­ion for your own. We all serve un­der the tyranny of time.

“Tu­pelo” and “Anx­i­ety” are the lat­est tracks to catch my ear, for the smol­der­ing soul and crunchy gui­tars, re­spec­tively. The pur­pose of this piece is not to give a track-by-track re­cap, but to try to con­tex­tu­al­ize one of the best coun­try-folk-pop al­bums of the year in an era where al­bums as such mean less than guys like me and Is­bell want to be­lieve they do. Be­cause peo­ple aren’t nec­es­sar­ily all that dis­crim­i­nat­ing about what they con­sume, and no one both­ers to lis­ten to lyrics any­way.

But the thing is, there’s prob­a­bly still an au­di­ence for a cer­tain kind of singer, one who’s more con­cerned with say­ing things about the world than pro­vid­ing an up­beat sound­track for some­one’s as­pi­ra­tional life­style. Is­bell has the in­tent and the tal­ent of an artist. While some of the pre-re­lease publicity sug­gested this al­bum would be a bit of a re­treat from the in­tro­spec­tive work of South­east­ern and Some­thing More Than Free, it’s not the “ridicu­lous … gui­tar” al­bum we were led to sus­pect. (Not that there’s any­thing wrong with a ridicu­lous … gui­tar al­bum; let’s hope he makes one.)

There’s plenty of re­gres­sive party pop mas­querad­ing as coun­try mu­sic th­ese days and that’s fine — no one has to lis­ten to it and the peo­ple who do lis­ten to it prob­a­bly don’t lis­ten very hard. Through­out the his­tory of recorded mu­sic it has been more about hair­cuts and mar­ket­ing than any­thing else. One of the great things about rock ’n’ roll was that it was al­ways as much cul­tural prac­tice as mu­si­cal per­for­mance. There was an in­her­ent democ­racy in the form — some of the best rock was pro­duced by kids who could barely play their in­stru­ments.

There is a mighty mu­si­cal­ity in Is­bell. He’s a for­mi­da­ble tal­ent who sings in tune and

de­liv­ers im­pec­ca­ble per­for­mances (which you might not have ex­pected based on his fe­ro­cious punk­ish work with Drive-By Truck­ers). But Is­bell’s more than a vir­tu­oso. He’ll strum a plain G chord if that’s all it takes. All his mas­tery is in ser­vice of the con­nec­tion he makes and main­tains with his au­di­ence.

Is­bell presents as what he is, a man from north Alabama who has trav­eled and seen things. He got sober and he found a good part­ner, yet while things are look­ing up per­son­ally, he sees a lot wrong with the world. Re­cent events have shaken a cer­tain faith he might have had in peo­ple who look and sound like him. This comes through in The Nashville Sound, which, as he sings, the mother of his baby girl wants to change. (“But they won’t let her.”)

Is­bell has made bet­ter records than this, and it’s likely he’ll make bet­ter ones in the fu­ture. But there’s some­thing about this work that feels nec­es­sary, in the same way the Truck­ers’ 2016 al­bum Amer­i­can Band felt nec­es­sary. Peo­ple who look and sound like me need peo­ple who look and sound like us to make records like this, to go on the talk shows and al­low that while there are stunted folks ev­ery­where, there are also pock­ets of hope and ex­cel­lence. Not ev­ery­thing is tawdry, not ev­ery­thing’s a sham.

They thought Cal­iban was just a “puppy-headed monster,” a feral brute “not honored with hu­man shape.” Still, he was prob­a­bly the Bard’s finest poet.


Steve Earle might be a poet too, though his lat­est, So You Want to Be an Out­law (Warner Bros.), is a more con­ven­tional show-biz ges­ture than any Cal­iban is likely to make. That’s not to say it’s a bad al­bum — it’s not, it’s just messy and in parts weirdly (or badly) recorded . It’s just that Earle knows all this out­law busi­ness got more than a lit­tle out of hand a long time ago. But his he­roes have al­ways been out­laws, so why not craft an homage and in­vite Wil­lie Nel­son into the stu­dio be­fore it’s too late?

While the ti­tle cut feels like the weak­est link in an oth­er­wise solid col­lec­tion of songs — Nel­son’s con­tri­bu­tion doesn’t help much but it’s kind of sweet — this is very much an Earle record. It’s full of smart lyrics and Earle’s growl­ing read­ings (which sound bet­ter now than they did dur­ing his first flush of star­dom in the ’80s) and his peren­nial themes of flushed po­ten­tial, faith­less babes and druggy nos­tal­gia. As a song­writer of the first rank, Earle is al­lowed — maybe even en­cour­aged — to re­peat him­self. Even though we have “Cop­per­head Road” it’s nice to add the mi­nor “The Fire­break Line” to the set. “If Mama Coulda Seen Me” evokes Merle Hag­gard’s “Mama Tried,” but doesn’t re­ally chal­lenge it. (Like that time Percy Shel­ley and Ho­race Smith wrote com­pet­ing son­nets about a for­lorn statue in the desert, it might be blas­phe­mous to say I pre­fer Smith’s “Ozy­man­dias” but I prob­a­bly do.)

But the best songs on the record — “News From Colorado,” “Girl on the Moun­tain” and “Walkin’ in L.A.” (which has the great Johnny Bush singing a verse) are well-ob­served nar­ra­tives that would fit in on bet­ter Earle al­bums. And the vale­dic­tory “Good­bye Michelan­gelo,” Earle’s farewell to his men­tor Guy Clark, is fit­tingly spare and unas­sail­ably felt.



Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Ja­son Is­bell “is as im­por­tant as any singer of folk songs can be th­ese days.”

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