Storytellers are a dime-a-dozen. Everybody has stories to tell and a bunch of them are worth listening to. A bunch of them, not so much. But finding a storyteller who's stories continue to grip you after multiple listens is a taller order. Finding yourself wanting to hear those stories over and over and over again, regardless of how many times you well up at the thought of the struggles the characters face is something special, cathartic if you will. Jason Isbell is that kind of storyteller and his new album, Southeastern, is filed with those kinds of stories.
When Isbell split with country rock heroes Drive-By Truckers back in 2007, his first solo effort was his own for the most part. He'd spend the next two albums sharing the billing with his backing band The 400 Unit. On Southeastern he's back to owning the name of this album on his own and rightly so. This is clearly Isbell's most personal and profound release to date and it makes sense for him to stand in front of the fan base and declare that these stories are his alone. Sure some members of the 400 Unit are still behind him - Chad Gamble returns on drums and former Son Volt member Derry deBorja is back on keys and mellotron. He's also backed by a host of superb players which include his immensely talented wife, Amanda Shires, guesting on one track. But at the end of the day this album is Isbell's and his alone. He commands every ounce of respect he gets for these songs simply because they are some of the best he's ever written and some of the best you'll hear this year.
Popular Country music today is a farce. It's superficial pop rock with cowboy hats and Daisy Duke shorts. For fans of the real deal, the great masters from the past and those that still dot the musical landscape, it's insulting what gets peddled as "country" in the mainstream media. Isbell is quickly becoming one of those new masters of the true Country craft. Sure you can doll it up in bows and ribbons, calling this album "Americana", "Alt Country", "Progressive Country"...but when did playing Country music the right way become "progressive"? Country music, even the good stuff, is chock full of cliches. But one area where Isbell is most successful in his songwriting is his ability to take those cliches - lost love, raucous behavior, etc. - and make them work in his favor. Think you know what it's like to lose someone? Try songs like "Elephant" and "Songs That She Sang In The Shower" on for size. You may re-evaluate how you feel about that girl that broke your heart. Tracks like the extremely powerful opener "Cover Me Up" reach levels of desperation and sorrow in ways that most songwriters would kill to get to.
That's not to say this is a depressing record. By the end of it all you'll feel for the people in these stories but the reverse is true as well. You'll also realize that at the end of the day we've all got problems and some are way bigger than others. What Isbell has done for you is shine a light on what's good for you...and you didn't even realize it was happening at the time. Isbell's Southeastern is a testament to the human spirit in acoustic guitar and Southern twang form.
You can visit Jason Isbell's website to order the album and to find the lyrics to this album as well. Meanwhile to whet your appetite here's a clip of Isbell performing "Elephant" on Sirius XM radio. (Warning: Curse words alert. Wear headphones if you're at work.)