Country music is having something of a moment in 2015.
The genre is more popular on the radio and on the charts than it ever has been in America. Five of the top twenty albums on Billboard’s 2014 year-end charts were from country artists—six if you count Taylor Swift, whose journey from country starlet to World’s Biggest Pop Star mirrors Nashville’s embrace of rock and hip-hop tropes to reach a wider (and younger) audience.
But as the Music City Machine has churned out hit after hit, it has also alienated many critics and fans, traditionalists who would deride the aforementioned chart-toppers with the self-explanatory tag “bro-country”. To hear them tell it, a new breed of country artists—including but not limited to Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, and Chris Stapleton—stand in direct and welcome opposition to those mainstays of radio. Their druggy meditations on DMT and spirituality and their sing-along equality anthems represent both a return to “real” country roots and a progressive departure from truck drivin’ Bible totin’ stereotypes; it’s a new outlaw movement for Millenials raised on Waylon and Willie and the boys.
This is a reductive dichotomy, of course, and the (limited) discussion surrounding it thus far has come off mostly as a self-serving effort to legitimize and separate “country for people who don’t like country” as a genre—call it hipsterization of the hoedown—but it has also served to highlight some damn good songwriting for an audience that may otherwise avoid pedal steel like the plague.
With the release of his fifth solo record, Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell could soon find himself standing squarely on top of that imaginary line in the sand. The 36-year-old has accumulated a wealth of alt-country cred over the course of his career: his stint as a contributing member of seminal Southern rock pioneers Drive-By Truckers coincided with that band’s prime, and his universally acclaimed 2013 solo breakthrough Southeastern placed him firmly among the genre’s elite.
That album was wrecked and raw, twelve confessions from a recently recovered alcoholic stuck on the first five steps outlined in the Big Book and the characters he created. He was an open wound as he sang tribute to his wife on “Cover Me Up”, ruminated on death and dignity on “Elephant”, and recalled a night of hard living on “Super 8”. And though those songs weren’t without their hooks, this latest collection pairs Isbell’s keen ear for catchy melodies with fuller, bouncier arrangements and more optimistic subject matter. The result is a record spattered with songs capable of bridging the gap between “alt” and accessible.
That’s not to say that Something More Than Free is Isbell’s “happy” album. He still deals largely in heartbreak and history here, but it’s from the perspective of a man at a different point in his recovery and in his life. He seems to glance back at the wreckage he left on “The Life You Chose” and “How To Forget”, asking a former lover: “Do you live with a man who knows you like I thought I did back then?” But he never stays turned for too long: “I guess I never did”. He knows you must occasionally look back in order to continue your journey forward.
(Step 8: Make a list of all persons you have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all).
Lead single “24 Frames” is an instruction manual for leading a better life—“This is how you make yourself call your mother, and this is how you make yourself closer to your brother”—but it comes complete with the reminder that God is “something like a pipe bomb ready to blow”, that everything we work for in life can dissolve in an instant. Rather than devaluing the initial to-do list outlined in the verses, however, the contrast served up on the chorus subtly emphasizes the beauty of striving to get the little things right in the midst of uncertainty.
(Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference).
“Flagship” begins as a vivid description of an aging hotel before evolving into an earnest discussion—the kind only afforded by the intimacy of a long, lasting relationship—between the visiting couple that are themselves aging, slowly but surely within its walls. Isbell observes those around them and implores “Baby let’s not ever get that way, I’ll say whatever words I need to say,”; again acknowledging the possibility of failure while making a heartfelt stride towards success. “Children of Children” is a sprawling examination of parenthood and childhood that recognises the joys and disappointments at both ends of that spectrum with candor and compassion.
As on Southeastern, the basis for most every song here is Isbell’s melodies and an acoustic guitar. And though his longtime backing band The 400 Unit was deliberately disconnected from most of that album’s writing and recording process, each of the tracks here was recorded live in the studio with bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gable, keyboardist Derry deBorja, guitarist Sadler Vaden and violinist/vocalist Amanda Shires (also Isbell’s expecting wife); they move masterfully around their maestro like a rubber band, bending and snapping into place at just the right moments.
That in-the-room immediacy is apparent throughout, not just in the album’s distinct sense of continuity, but in its ventures into unexpected sonic territory. “Children of Children” and “Palmetto Rose” are dosed with proggy 70’s flourishes reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young courtesy of the groovy bass and spacey lead guitar. Shires’ violin on opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” give the song a bounce it might otherwise lack; on “Hudson Commodore”, it swoops in to exquisitely underscore the beautiful, multi-harmony elongation of the word “ride” that serves as the song’s hook. The bottle-slide electric guitar on “Speed Trap Town” is the perfect complement to Isbell’s lazy strum; it never gives in to the temptation to overtake the plaintive ballad and thus only adds to the song’s emotional weight.
“Speed Trap Town” is also one of a handful of songs on Something More Than Free that discusses Southern life in carefully rendered detail. Isbell alludes to both the comfort and craziness of small town life in his story of the son of a dying state trooper with a brevity and brilliance beyond his years. On the title track, he inhabits a character inspired by his own father: a man whose blue-collar work ethic and faith go hand in hand. He focuses on rewards this world isn’t likely to bring him but is content “doing what [he’s] on this earth to do”. The title of “Palmetto Rose” refers to a traditional handmade decoration made by Southern women and given to the men that they love to protect them; the narrator on the chorus rails against “the law that [he] hate[s]” but nevertheless pleads to die in the Iodine state, home to the women he loves.
That “Palmetto Rose” is about the state of South Carolina won’t be lost on anyone with a mild interest and a connection to the Internet. Given what happened in Charleston in June, it’s difficult to digest, even though it was clearly written and recorded long before that horrible tragedy.
Though that song may read as romanticization, the author has never been one to shy away from shameful truths. On Something More Than Free and solo albums prior, Isbell has taken a dissecting knife to the past, providing an unflinching (and often unflattering) account of his own development and that of the region he calls home. In life, as in song, he denounces those who stand in the way of progress: recent Twitter updates from Isbell have condemned the Confederate flag and those who continue to discriminate against gay people.
Perhaps this is where the real line in the sand is drawn, not just in country music, but in America: between those in the South who seek change and those who continue to drink their beer and build their bonfires, content with the status quo.
The Confederate flag is coming down in South Carolina. It’s a small gesture, one that won’t fix the South or fix America. It is, however, an acknowledgement of failure and, I hope, a heartfelt stride towards success. God grant us the courage to change the things we can.
(Step 10: Continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, promptly admit it).