Jason Isbell’s new record, Something More Than Free, has been in my player for weeks. The reviews have been great, and it enjoyed Isbell’s best debut to date, selling a large number of units for a non-mainstream record. Isbell, who can play the singer-songwriter with the acoustic guitar or knock you over with a guitar solo if he chooses to, has found an even higher level of subtlety and nuance this time out, resulting in an accessible, sonically pleasing record that still packs a lyrical punch. I wrote a review a couple of weeks ago, but set it aside when it seemed those who had already reviewed the record had addressed it quite well.
Shortly after SMTF was released, I noticed what seemed to be a veiled reference to Isbell’s debut numbers in Bob Lefsetz’s letter titled “The Data”. Lefsetz said, “And just because a record is number one, that doesn’t mean much.” I thought his remark was an odd coincidence, coming just days after Billboard noted that Isbell debuted on the top of the Country chart. Lefsetz has dissed Isbell before, so I figured I was being a little too sensitive, maybe too much of a fanboy, so I let it slide. Then Lefsetz made a direct reference in his letter. “I know I’m supposed to prefer Jason Isbell,” said Lefsetz in the lead sentence of his love essay on Luke Bryan.
We have to remember, I suppose, that for Lefsetz, and so many others, it’s about the business, the sales, the numbers. 46,000 units in the first week might be a good outing for Jason Isbell, but it’s a blip on the screen for Beyonce or Taylor Swift. And it’s those Goliaths and, I suppose, the legacy acts, that drive the music business.
On the other hand, Lefsetz recognizes and understands that live audiences are not always built on hit records. In New Rules, Lefsetz said, “Iggy Azalea can barely sell a ticket and Wilco hasn’t ever had a hit but performs to thousands a night. Who do you want to be? Of course you want to be Wilco, believe me.”
So here I am, back at my keyboard, because of Lefsetz. The part of this calculus that he doesn’t get is that Isbell is the new Wilco, he’s the coming connection between what drives those of us in the niche with those who are happy in the mainstream. His music (and particularly SMTF) works on a broad level while still containing nuggets of truth in the lyrics for those who are interested in such things.
There are few out there right now more secure in their artistry or more comfortable in their skin than Isbell. He’s done his 10,000 hours, some of them with the Truckers, some on his own. Isbell is above all a poet, an Alabama wordsmith who gets it, and by it, I mean he gets the way people see their world and themselves. He voices their angst and joy, sometimes exactly how they might say it, and sometimes in a more articulate way than they could have done it, but even when he improves on the underlying utterances, the truth of their words in his songs resonates.
The themes are not new. Work, love, loneliness, reminiscence, pride, and heartbreak. He captures these themes not by singing about trucks or tractors, not by slogans or trite choruses, but instead by reaching into the souls of his subjects and pulling out the essence of their worldview, in rhyme. He’s too crafty to be purely autobiographical and too honest to go to central casting looking for prototypes. He touches the reality of existence, particularly here in the South, without giving into the temptation to deal in composites or generalizations.
Isbell says the title track of SMTF is about his dad – “I don’t think on why I’m here or how it hurts, I’m just lucky to have the work. Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church but I thank God for the work.” I’ve never met his dad, but I know that man. I’m not him, but I am his son, even as I think too much and often forget how lucky I am to have the work I’ve been blessed with having. In “If It Takes A Lifetime”, Isbell sings again about work, this time our hero sees it differently. He’s been in this job for almost a year, and he “can’t recall a day [he] didn’t want to disappear.” Oh yeah, says him, and her. And so many others. To disappear. That would be nice.
“Flagship” sweetly puts a bow around the idea of keeping it new. It sounds a bit Jason and Amanda-ish, in a good way. The end line on the chorus, “We’ll call ourselves the flagship of the fleet” sounds like lovers’ code, maybe theirs. If that were all, the song would be unremarkable, just a little love note jotted down on a scrap of paper that would flutter away in a breeze or wind up in the back of a drawer. But Isbell strings together images of an old couple in a tired hotel, shined boots, romantic rocks against a window, and a broken-hearted guy in a corvette. As Professor David Berry told me so many years ago, you gotta put things in your poems, not ideas. If you put in the right things, the ideas will come.
Isbell takes us to Alabama in “Speed Trap Town”. We’ve all driven through one of these towns, but the voice of this song is the son of the Trooper who pulls you over. Dad had a heart attack and is dying, and it’s time for our hero to get the hell out of Dodge. Or Town Creek, or whichever of the hundreds of such towns he’s in. And he does get out, and we leave him as he’s drinking a cup of coffee a thousand miles away, by an Indian mound.
In the most upbeat tune on the record, we are transported to South Carolina. “Palmetto Rose” is bound to be a crowd favorite if it gets worked into Isbell’s live shows, and they’ll sing along about dying in The Iodine State without ever thinking twice about that taxi driver who must’ve inspired this tune.
I like reading Bob Lefsetz’s letters, but I’d rather listen to Jason Isbell’s music. And though it probably doesn’t matter a whit, I wish Lefsetz would give Isbell his due. Here’s a guy who does everything Lefsetz preaches about. He’s got his chops. He cultivates his audience. He’s building his live following. And now he’s getting a little chart success, and quite a bit of national recognition, including a feature on CBS Sunday Morning. Thank God he isn’t Luke Bryan or Kenny Chesney. At least there’s that.
NOTE: After this piece was posted, Lefsetz came back with another letter about Luke Bryan, but his lead paragraph said this:
I’m gonna get to Jason Isbell. The track is “Speed Trap Town.” What I hate about the media is they focus on the work track, the one the label promotes that it believes will appeal to the most, mostly those who do not care, whereas “Speed Trap Town” is a quiet, intimate song you’ll never hear on the radio that will draw you into your alienation and loneliness and make you believe in music as the most powerful artistic medium and make you wonder where Nashville went. But having said all that…
Check out Isbell here at Peacemaker Music Fest doing “Palmetto Rose”: