I think the best way to understand the music of Jason Isbell is to know his origin story. Because the story of Jason Isbell’s music is not possible without knowing where he came from. And, through that, we come to know the hundreds of characters that populate his four-minute, deeply moving stories.
The 40-year-old Jason Isbell is from unincorporated Lauderdale County (go Tigers), and grew up just few miles from the Tennessee line in the Green Hill community. He’s the child of a teen mother and a broken home. Like several of the musicians that have appeared on our Things list, Isbell came from a musical family and took a shine to music at an early age. And, as with several artists we’ve highlighted, Isbell was influenced by the larger sights and sounds around him: Gospel, blues, Shoals rock and roll, country, rural life in a rural state, local politics and perception, the closely-knit families and equally destroyed ones, church twice a week. But, that’s where the A&E Biography stuff ends, and where the magic begins.
They say to write what you know, and, buddy, what Isbell knows are the stories that we all know, but certainly don’t hear told very often: divorce, domestic violence, suicide, teen pregnancy, terminal illness, joblessness and struggle, abandonment, crumbling small towns, sexual assault, war — and not necessarily the triumphalism we see on news features.
But, Isbell does not traffic in the merely morose; because, these are not penny dreadfuls. There is depth and humanity, humor and homecoming, gratitude and joy abounding in just as many others. That is because he doesn’t set out to necessarily write songs about themes, he writes them about people. And people aren’t two-dimensional.
Every generation of contemporary American music has its own unique voice. And Isbell is nothing less than the direct descendant of those unique wordsmiths that came before him. You can trace that straight line still today — thematically and musically, if not always geographically: from Woody Guthrie to John Prine and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp to the present. He is a poet, essayist, reporter, and musician in equal measures.
That is why his music resonates so deeply with so many people. It oft seems as though he is speaking to us, because, in a very really sense, he is speaking of us.
His work is the love of the storytelling tradition, an expert observer, and the painstaking attention of a master craftsman. It shines through in nearly every track, with each vignette a snapshot in time. Just ordinary people living ordinary lives.
Through those, he shows us the extraordinary.