Jason Isbell has been an ex-Drive-by Trucker nearly as long as he was a Drive-by Trucker. Still, to most music fans he’s known almost exclusively for his work with that band. That’s a shame, because since his departure Isbell has put out three wonderful records both on his own and with his current backing band, the 400 Unit.
The first anyone heard of Isbell’s voice was likely Outfit, one of Isbell’s two contributions to the DBT’s 2003 album Decoration Day. In the song Isbell sings about advice given to from a father to a son. It’d be southern schmaltz if not for the details of the telling. In the opening verse, a father asks, “You want to grow up and paint houses like me? /…You want to feel old after 42 years? Keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.” The song itself follows the familiar Springsteen model: blues in the verse, where father recounts the compromises that he’s made as bit by bit the world has ground him down, and gospel in the chorus, where father offers son what little advice he can (“Don’t sing with a fake British accent / Don’t act like your family’s a joke”). In the final verse, father warns son “don’t let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy-man’s paint.”
The modern reality of life as a musician is, sadly, essentially as bleak as the life of a laborer. In the age of instant downloads and file sharing, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can make a living as a musician. (Before you respond to that invitation to join Spotify, consider that it will take 4 million streams before your favorite artist earns a minimum wage salary.) Sadly for artists like Isbell, the only hope they have to make a living is to grind it out on the road. Even so, it’s likely harder to make a living at it now than at any time in recent history.
That’s a genuine tragedy, because if anyone is worthy of success it’s Isbell, whose new record, Here We Rest (recorded with the 400 Unit) is worthy of high praise. The album explores the realities of a life that has been spent heeding the advice given in Outfit. It opens with the beautiful, folksy “Alabama Pines” in which that narrator finds himself a stranger in his own life: “I don’t even know my name anymore,” he declares. “If no one calls it out, it kind of vanishes away.” The song establishes a major theme of the album itself. Having chosen the life of on the road, the narrator of several songs finds himself confronting the realities of that decision. Back home, with no one calling out his name, he repeatedly struggles with the consequences of the life he has chosen.
Jason Isbell, Alabama Pines
Jason Isbell, Tour of Duty
Like Springsteen, Isbell’s songs are grounded in time and place: Alabama in the midst of the current economic and political crisis. “Alabama Pines” ends with the speaker lamenting that “no one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about. The liberties that we can’t do without seem to disappear like ghosts in the air. When we don’t really care, it truly vanishes away.” On the album’s closer, “Tour of Duty,” a soldier returns home from “all the work we did in vain” claiming “I’m not the same as I was” but promising to “try to do what a civilian does.” Here, Isbell is closer to Steve Earle than Springsteen, managing to be both specific and allegorical, to speak for both the soldier coming home and the musician coming off the road, both trying to make sense and assimilate into a world that has become foreign to them.
Jason Isbell, Codeine
If there were any justice in the world, “Codeine” would be a huge hit. It’s one of the catchiest songs of the year, laid out essentially as litany of things the narrator dislikes, such as “this bar and this cover band trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’” In the chorus, Isbell sings longingly to a girl whose “friend has taken her in and given her codeine.” Like the very best songs, the sentiment is universal, but the details are wonderfully specific.
Elsewhere, Isbell and the 400 Unit show some evidence of what a killer live band they are. “Heart on a String” is pure Alabama soul, and “Never Could Believe” is classic Muscle Shoals groove (Don’t know what Muscle Shoals groove is? Google it. You know it.) Both songs ground the album in the same musical territory that the album’s narrators find themselves and both sound like the work of the best damn bar band you’ve ever heard.
David Wilson is a teacher, writer, and the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Miss Ohio. Their recent EP, “Called and Raised,” is available for digital download. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.