Jason Isbell: Caliban and the Southern Man
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
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.
Jason Isbell “is as important as any singer of folk songs can be these days.”