I'm looking through the lyric sheet for Jason Isbell's CD, Southeastern, wondering how I can convey this feeling. The words that made their home inside me don't look like much on the page. I can't hear the desperate resignation of the music, the hopeless tailing off of a melody or the matter-of-fact delivery that makes me want to punch someone for the injustice it swallows. But it's still the words - carried by the music - that have burrowed into my heart.
This CD was loaned to me by a recent acquaintance. I want it to be clear that this isn't someone who knows my musical tastes, particularly, although we've talked about some bands and some festival-related experiences. Nor is she someone who knows my heart and the things inside me that need saying. So it's surprising that she would recommend a CD to me, and I didn't know what to expect.
The first track struck me as very country influenced, but she had mentioned the lyrics and I was reasonably impressed. I've always loved refrains in which the repeated phrase changes slightly each time, giving a different color to the overall picture. I found the second track unlistenable because of a twangy female voice providing country harmonies."We talk about blues and rock," I told myself. "She wouldn't give me a country album."
But the third track. My soul swiveled like cats' ears, on full alert.
Mountain's rough this time of year
They close the highway down ...
(this is why I don't think I could live in the Rockies)
I know every town worth passing through
But what good does knowing do
With no one to show it to
<sigh> Yeah. The song is called "Traveling Alone," but the sentiment applies to more than travel. Music, for instance. What good does knowing do, if there's no one to share it with?
I listened to "Traveling Alone" twice in a row before moving on to the rest of the CD, which I never do. It just struck me that deeply and immediately.
Isbell is a storyteller of the absolute best kind. Rather than narrating, he draws back a curtain to reveal a silhouette, then lets in a little light, bit by bit, until the shadows give depth and definition to the forms. "There is a crack in everything - that's how the light gets in. " Isbell knows how to use those cracks. He makes you wait for the twist, the element that changes the story: Cancer. A rifle. A photograph.
And his mastery of metaphor is probably more advanced that I even understand. In "Live Oak" he sings of a girl who may or may not see the man he used to be. The song is breathtaking enough at that level, but I suspect the "girl" may actually be something else: his own wayward nature, the devil on his shoulder, whispering to him to fall back into those old ways.
There's a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me
And I wonder who she's pining for on nights I'm not around
Could it be the man who did the things I'm living down
Up to this point I have deliberately not looked up anything about Jason Isbell. I don't know how he would classify his own music or what genre he's been assigned. My friend said this is his first album since he got sober, and you can hear his grief and bleak resignation throughout. I especially like the refrain, "But those were different days."
So now I learn that Isbell took home awards for Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year (for the first track on this album, "Cover Me Up") at the Americana Music Awards last month. Wikipedia just calls him a singer-songwriter, without any genre label. His music influences are from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which explains a lot. I think I might invoke Jackson Browne here, with his country-shaded, heartfelt, sometimes morose musings.
I still don't know what to say about the music. I've made it sound pretty desolate, but it has a home inside me and it's not a bad place. So here's the official music video for "Traveling Alone":
UPDATE: He's coming to St. Louis in February. I have to go. But he'll be at the Peabody Opera House, with its inadequate leg room and elbow room.