Starter Kit: Jason Isbell

JasonIsbellcolorbyMichaelWilsonIn early February, Zac Brown Band kicked off a brief cycle of Twitter Outrage when they performed a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” which they are rumored to have cut for their upcoming album, during a high-profile ESPN gig. Some of Isbell’s devoted fans were livid that a mainstream country performer had covered Isbell’s song, insisting that it should be Isbell with the multi-platinum stats and sold-out arena tours.

There’s something to that line of thinking, of course: Were commercial music a strict meritocracy, then Isbell would be an international superstar on the strengths of his one-of-a-kind songwriting and intuitive, soulful singing. Isbell, to his credit, responded to the uproar with a level-headed and fundamentally correct statement about how people who clamor for more substance in mainstream country shouldn’t be attacking artists who are interested in cutting songs like “Dress Blues.”

Isbell’s extraordinary fourth album, Southeastern, landed at #2 on Country Universe’s round-up of the Best Country Albums of 2013, and his reputation has only deepened over the past thirteen months. Alongside artists like Ashley Monroe, Sturgill Simpson, and Brandy Clark, Isbell seems to have developed something of a following among mainstream acts, as artists like Little Big Town and Jake Owen have professed that they consider themselves fans of his work. Though he’s been well-known among Americana circles since he emerged as a member of Drive-By Truckers, it seems that Isbell may be on the verge of breaking out among the wider country audience.

So, for those unfamiliar with Jason Isbell’s work, here’s a Starter Kit of a dozen songs that highlight what make him one of the finest singer-songwriters in contemporary music.

Drive-By Truckers Decoration Day

From Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day (2003)

Country music has a long and storied histories of “advice” songs, but rarely have they been written with the wrenching mix of hope for the future and a lifetime of ossified regrets that Isbell brings to “Outfit,” the standout track from Drive-By Truckers’ essential Decoration Day. Singing from the POV of a father who has realized that his son has settled for the same dead-end job that he long ago settled for, Isbell digs into the very Southern notion of “getting above your raising” with real empathy and self-deprecating humor. When he sings, “And don’t let ’em take who you are, boy/And don’t try to be who you ain’t/And don’t let me catch you in Kendale/With a bucket of wealthy man’s paint,” it isn’t an admonishment or cautionary tale but a parent’s wish for things to be better for his child. With “Outfit,” Isbell knocked it out of the park on one of the first songs anyone ever heard from him, announcing himself as a lyricist of remarkable depth and perspective, armed with a narrative voice that is uniquely Southern and a poetic way with a turn-of-phrase.

Drive-By Truckers A Blessing and a Curse

“Easy On Yourself”
From Drive-By Truckers’ A Blessing & A Curse (2006)

Not all of Isbell’s advice comes from a place of kindness, though. With “Easy On Yourself” from A Blessing & A Curse, his last album with Drive-By Truckers before embarking on his solo career, Isbell is backed by a the kind of blistering, hard-driving arrangement that have made DBT one of America’s finest rock bands, as he dresses-down those who suffer from a lack of ambition. He conveys a palpable frustration as he sings, “I can’t tell you what to sell and how to tow the line/And when to just give up,” before launching into the chorus: “Don’t be so easy on yourself.” It’s a song that can be most charitably described as “tough love.”

Jason Sirens of the Ditch

“Dress Blues”
From Sirens of the Ditch (2007)

Simply put, this is the finest song that has been written about the last decade-plus of US military action. Written in honor of Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, “Dress Blues” hinges on devastating first-person details and Isbell’s mournful vocal turn. The second verse is one long gut-check: “Your wife said this all would be funny to you/When you got back home in a week/You’d turn 22 and we’d celebrate you/In a bar or a tent by the creek/The baby would just about be here/And your very last tour would be up/But you won’t be back/They’re all dressing in black/Drinking sweet tea in styrofoam cups.” That’s just about as good as contemporary songwriting gets, and if Zac Brown Band can get lines like that to the top of the country charts and get a song like this heard? More power to them.

Jason Sirens of the Ditch

“In a Razor Town”
From Sirens of the Ditch (2007)

An appropriately cutting observation on how deadening small-town life can be when one allows their world to become so small that they no longer have space to breathe, “In a Razor Town” also serves as a withering critique of Nashville. Over a gentle chord progression– one that, it’s worth mentioning, Isbell once accused Dierks Bentley of plagiarizing for his hit single “Home”– Isbell showcases his gift for unconventional images and phrases that invite and reward multiple interpretations.

 Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

“Seven Mile Island”
From Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (2009)

Isbell assembled an ace backing band for his second solo outing, and The 400 Unit provide a loose-limbed sound that draws as heavily from vintage soul and country as from the Southern-fried rock of Isbell’s tenure with Drive-By Truckers. “Seven Mile Island” slithers along a propulsive rhythm section as Isbell lays out the story of a man who sees himself as far more valuable to his wife and unborn daughter dead than he would be alive. Rather than a funereal dirge, the song plays as a celebratory send-off.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

From Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (2009)

Even when writing about topics that seem straightforward or familiar– in the case of “Sunstroke,” a break-up– Isbell chooses images that are consistently novel but nonetheless insightful and perfectly measured. “Here it is morning for some folks,” he sings on the song’s chorus, “But twilight for those of us left/Who sleep while the soldiers get sunstroke/And make little fools of ourselves.” Isbell’s narrator is over the relationship in question, but he’s frustrated with himself for allowing things to get to this point.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

“The Last Song I Will Write”
From Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (2009)

There’s a deep melancholy that runs through the majority of Isbell’s work, and that’s rarely been more apparent or put to more poetic use than on “The Last Song I Will Write,” which closes Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. From the weary opening lines (“Come run away with me/This ain’t the world we signed up for”), the song is a love letter that is whole-hearted and sincere while also betraying a nihilistic bent: The possibility of love is the only remaining glimmer of hope, and it’s fading fast.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Here We Rest

From Here We Rest (2011)

Perhaps Isbell’s most explicitly funny song, “Codeine” is all about numbing pain, either through distraction and disinterest or through self-medicating. While he sits around and shoots the shit, bemoaning all of the things that get under his skin (bad cover bands, having to cook, the relationship he is pointedly not going home to deal with), Isbell’s lover has gone home with a friend to get loaded on Purple Drank. The character sketches on Here We Rest aren’t always kind, but as Isbell sings here, he’s “not one to judge.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Here We Rest

“We’ve Met”
From Here We Rest (2011)

One of Isbell’s simplest, most linear narratives, “We’ve Met” is also an extraordinary for its blend of discomfort and regret. Recounting an awkward reunion with someone he pined for years ago– someone who clearly has no recollection of ever having crossed paths before– Isbell mourns for a missed opportunity, berating himself for leaving town. The song’s refrain is Isbell at his most concise: “Do you know how long I’ve waited for you?”

Jason Isbell Southeastern

“Cover Me Up”
From Southeastern (2013)

It’s a critical dead-end to read strictly autobiographical interpretations of songs– no matter how much Taylor Swift may insist otherwise– but it’s impossible to separate “Cover Me Up,” the jaw-dropping opener of Isbell’s Southeastern, from his well-publicized struggles toward sobriety and his marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. There’s a break in Isbell’s voice as he sings, “But I sobered up/And I swore off that stuff, forever this time,” in the song’s second verse that says everything about his connection to this song’s narrative. An unaffected and unflinching song, “Cover Me Up” doesn’t shy away from laying bare its narrator’s very significant flaws. But the song’s power is in its hard-fought journey toward redemption, of acknowledging that others see you as someone worthy.

Jason Isbell Southeastern

From Southeastern (2013)

Isbell plays the role of “Andy,” who provides company to a young woman with terminal cancer. There are no platitudes or too-easy triumphs-of-the-human-spirit here, just the gradual realization that, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity/We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.” In his refusal to dress death up in pretty images or to rely on empty uplift, Isbell tells a story that is harrowing and deeply affecting while still allowing his compassion and empathy to shine through.

Jason Isbell Southeastern

“New South Wales”
From Southeastern (2013)

The majority of Southeastern digs deep, as Isbell stares down personal demons and wrestles with forces beyond his control. So “New South Wales” comes as a reprieve from the album’s most difficult themes: Far more than bad drugs and watered-down liquor, good company and spirited conversation provide the most welcome forms of escapism. And, on “New South Wales,” Isbell sounds all too eager to revel in both.

Those twelve tracks make for a fine Starter Kit for anyone who hasn’t yet discovered Jason Isbell, though, admittedly, his catalog is so rich that fully half of these songs could be traded for most any of his other tracks without suffering a loss in quality. If more of country music’s biggest stars were to start recording his material, that would be a boon to those who long for the genre to include thoughtful, creative songs that explore the full range of the human experience, and it would in no way diminish the strength of Isbell’s own essential recordings.


  1. I have a hard time understanding why people get so territorial when somebody thinks enough of a good song to do their own version of it. Good for Zac Brown Band for recognizing a good song and sharing it with the mainstream, since they’re the ones with the high profile platform. It only benefits everyone.

  2. I love Jason Isbell, so I’m pumped that Zac Brown (who I also rather enjoy) covered Dress Blues, and I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t be, other than for stupid hipster reasons.

  3. I also have to agree that having Zac Brown record “Dress Blues” is a good thing. It’s a powerful song. Reading the lyrics made me think of Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” which I last read 30 years ago. I’ll have to check out some of the other Isbell songs and read “All Quiet …” again.

  4. I love “Southeastern”, so I’ll definitely have to listen to these other tracks.

    I’ve read a really interesting interpretation of “Elephant” on The Song Survives that suggested the song might be about Isbell’s drug addictions personified as a woman with cancer as he slowly tries to get sober (Thus, killing his addictions). I think this interpretation makes the song even more heartbreaking, and it definitely works in context with the rest of the album.

  5. You are right about being able to sample from many other great songs not listed. Truly an amazing catalog for only four solo albums and cuts from three DBT albums.

    From his older solo stuff, I love “Streetlights.” Great song. That final verse gets me every time.

  6. Live Oak should be on any essential Isbell list. That song haunts you right down to the bones of your body. It is one of those songs that isn’t just a musical work of art but something that is itself, its own experience.

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