To close out another banner year at ToM, we asked several of our contributors to write about their favorite fiction, music, history, film, or TV of 2013. This is the first in our series, from Middle Tennessee State University historian Brian Ingrassia.
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern is about sobering up and finding love. But it is also about growing old and seeking satisfaction in life before mortality sets in. This is an album about dues paying and hard lessons learned—an album that many of us can understand all too well as we rehab from the binge-and-hangover years of the last decade.
The third track on Southeastern is “Traveling Alone,” a haunting tune punctuated by the plaintive fiddle of Isbell’s new wife, Amanda Shires. It is not difficult to hear the song’s refrain (“I’ve grown tired of traveling alone…Won’t you ride with me?”) as a plea to a new lover, which it certainly is. Yet there are deeper concerns: “Pain in the outside lane, I’m tired of answering to myself/Heart like a rebuilt part, I don’t know how much it’s got left.” The last few years have been years of rebuilding, and who knows how much life is left in our fragile, rebuilt parts?
Jason Isbell should know a thing or two about rebuilding. It may seem that he burst onto the national scene just this year, with a New York Times review in May and an NPR segment in July. But his success, as well as his potential demise, had been percolating for years. In a chance 2001 moment that is nearly legendary in alt-country circles, the 22 year-old filled in for a no-show guitarist at a house party. By the next morning, Isbell was a member of the Drive-By Truckers. For the next six years, he lent his considerable musical talents to the raucous southern rock band known for chugging Jack Daniel’s on stage. Although the Truckers recorded only about ten songs penned by Isbell, virtually all became staples among the band’s faithful—so much so that nowadays their shows, while robust, seem a bit empty without Isbell’s tunes: kind of like a big old southern grin that happens to be missing an incisor or two.
Isbell’s time in the Truckers is memorialized in one of Southeastern’s few high-octane moments. “I don’t want to die in a Super 8 motel,” he confides in a song that recounts his pre-rehab days. A few too many drinks, some bleeding from the ear, a little dinner lost in the sink—it used to be all part of a night’s work. They just “slapped me back to life and they telephoned my wife and they filled me full of Pedialyte.” Infuse a different kind of liquor and get back to work, back to more dues paying. But these are different days, as Isbell sings elsewhere. A decade ago he might have stuck around and kept using the girl who believed everything he whispered in her ear; now he knows that even though it is harder to say goodbye, it is the right thing to do. Once upon a time, it might have been tempting to run away from it all—but escape is harder now than it used to be. Is it because we have too much technology tying us together, or because we have too many grownup obligations? Sometimes one is hard pressed to make the distinction.
In live shows with his band the 400 Unit, Isbell plays youthful Drive-By Truckers songs like “Outfit,” as well as crowd staples from the solo albums he has released since departing—one might say getting kicked out of—the Truckers in 2007. One song, the subtly anti-war “Dress Blues,” is such a favorite that if a concert ends without it, fans can become downright irate. (I witnessed this firsthand right after a July 4th weekend show in Chattanooga. That middle-aged woman I encountered back at the hotel was decidedly pissed off about what was missing from the set list.) Another staple is “Goddamn Lonely Love,” a Wilco-flavored 2004 ballad that the Times rightly called a “beautiful bummer of a tune.” But once again, these are different days. On stage recently at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge, Isbell’s smiling eyes briefly locked with Shires’s during the song. The guttural growl of his gold, semi-hollow body guitar interwove artfully with her ethereal fiddle. Maybe even rebuilt parts have some mileage left in them.
Southeastern is not a placeless album; its title is neither a glib moniker nor a mere signifier. Traveling and displacement permeate the tracks, but coming home to stay is also a prominent theme. In “Flying over Water,” Isbell sings of a highway glimpsed from the air as a “string pulled tight from home to Tennessee.” In “Cover Me Up,” the record’s opener and its most unabashedly—even nakedly—rehabilitative, the narrator implores his lover to hang her dress up and leave her boots by the bed: it is cold out there, and chopping firewood is not going to be enough. He needs shelter. Unless nature intervenes and the Stones River breaks through Percy Priest dam to carry the house away “like a piece of driftwood,” no one is going anywhere. Here is the chosen place; now is the chosen time.
Isbell closes Southeastern with the ambiguously redemptive “Relatively Easy.” With his new love, “there’s always something to look forward to”; his “angry heart beats relatively easy.” Some good friends didn’t make it, and many others are still struggling, but most of us can realize that things are not nearly as bad as they could be. “Watch that lucky man walk to work again/He may not have a friend left in the world/See him walking home again to sleep alone/I step into a shop to buy a postcard for a girl.” Even relationships are only relatively easy around these parts.
As 2013 winds to a close, Jason Isbell invites us to ask how much more our rebuilt lives can take. Quite a bit, one hopes. The realization of our failings and mortality can be bitter, it turns out—but surviving long enough to relish what we have can be sweet, too.
Brian M. Ingrassia is an assistant professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University and the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (University Press of Kansas, 2012). He has also been cited extensively, if inaptly, by George Will.