Jason Isbell’s Alt-Alt-Country Masterpiece

Jason Isbell at the 2016 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
With much of the Americana genre descending into simplistic politics, Isbell has produced a magnificent, nuanced gem.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T here has long been a chasmic disconnect between the creators and the consumers of Americana music. The Americana songwriter still wants to be Woody Guthrie, but the Americana listener stopped being Tom Joad about 60 years ago. Americana — or alt-country, or folk, or whatever we’re calling it this week — speaks most to the experiences of Red America, of a rural, blue-collar demographic that is overwhelmingly conservative, Christian, and Republican. The people who make the music, meanwhile, tend to be — well, the other kind of Red.

The advent of the Trump era brought the divide to clearer view than ever before. Muscle Shoals, a city rivaled only by Nashville in its importance to the genre, sits in Alabama’s fourth district — the only district in the entire country to vote more than 80 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. But soon after the people of Muscle Shoals came out in force to cast these votes, the anti-Trump sentiment of the creative class came to dominate the Americana scene. Son Volt’s Union (2019) was a train wreck of Trump hysteria — this from a band whose debut, Trace (1995), was not just an instant classic but an era-defining, genre-defining masterpiece. Drive-by Truckers, a homegrown Muscle Shoals band whose integration of Southern rock into alt-country has produced artistic successes that Ronnie van Zant himself couldn’t have dreamed of, delivered a schizophrenic flop with The Unraveling (2020). At least the title is appropriate.

Amid this ocean of fallen giants and failed experiments, Jason Isbell stands alone. Now, don’t get me wrong: Of all these artists, Isbell might actually be the most progressive. Nor do I mean to say that Isbell’s uniqueness is in separating politics from art. He does not; he does not even try. But Isbell manages to navigate politics with a skill, an insight, and a nuance that even his most talented peers apparently lack. His latest (and second post-Trump) album, Reunions (2020), is a triumph — and a possible antidote to the humdrum activism that has consumed the genre, and suffocated it.

On one level, this is probably a matter of talent. Isbell is, by any artistic standard, a genius — a once-in-a-generation talent, or more. The son of a house painter and grandson of a Pentecostal preacher, he burst onto the scene in 2001, joining Drive-by Truckers, primarily as a guitarist, at the ripe age of 22. Any word about his instrumental skill would be an understatement. Let this suffice: He can play the guitar almost as well as Amanda Shires (his wife and frequent collaborator) can play the fiddle. Hell, if Joseph Stalin could pick a guitar the way Isbell can, I’d pay to see his show. I did see Isbell live in Boston three years back; his technical virtuosity together with a voice perfectly suited to this kind of music make him one of the best performers at work today.

That gift comes across just as clearly on record. The sound of Reunions is spectacular. Isbell’s own skill, the diverse talents of his band (The 400 Unit, including Shires), and the masterful production of Dave Cobb coalesce into a wonder of an album, sonically speaking. The style is fresh and creative too: a new, lively blend of the blues, folk, and rock influences that have informed Isbell’s craft for years. This certainly helps to set Reunions apart from the activist albums that have become the norm of late — none of which, with the exception of a few decent tracks off of The Unraveling, have been particularly good music.

But there is more than sound to this album, and to Isbell. Alt-country has always run on adrenaline. It is stripped almost completely of the wit and method of the last century’s great songwriters — Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Townes van Zandt — whom Isbell admires and imitates. There is no poetry in it; just passion and performance. It aims for catharsis more than any other end. When that catharsis expresses not the stuffless rage of the American underclass but the withered id of the anti-Trump elite, it is something less than effective, and certainly less than beautiful.

But Isbell is a lyricist of an entirely different order from Patterson Hood, Jay Farrar, or any other alt-country great. John Mayer (if his opinion counts for anything) called Isbell in 2015 “the best lyric writer of [his] generation.” Mayer continued with even higher praise: “He lives at a level where even great writers can only visit.” A tall claim, but a valid one.

Isbell’s gift for not just lyricism but storytelling and character-building is on full display in this album, and it makes for a stark contrast with the genre’s other recent offerings. Take, for example, one of the most divisive political topics of the Trump years: the separation of families by various migrant and refugee crises. Drive-by Truckers attempted to tackle the subject in the track “Babies in Cages.” It’s exactly as subtle and nuanced as the title (which is also its three-word chorus) suggests. It is catharsis aping dialectic and failing in the end to achieve either one.

Isbell, meanwhile, addresses the same hot-button material in “Overseas,” with dramatically different results. The opening lines are pure Southern Gothic poetry: “This used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out and the sound of the highway died. There’s ashes in the swimming pool.” What follows is a poignant monologue on the pain of a person torn by rival loves: for a place, a partner, a parent, a child. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, but it is also intensely relatable for the overwhelming majority of us who have never had to see ashes in our swimming pools.

It is not so much above politics as it is below them. It casts in a distinctly human light what has elsewhere been reduced to rhetoric, dialectic, and argument. There is a balance, too, that helps with the delivery of controversial subjects driven so forcefully by other artists. “Overseas” is just one track among many — some with political bents, some without. It sits among songs about growing up in a broken American family, about becoming a father (Mercy Isbell is 4 years old now), about getting sober. Reunions is a set of human stories, not of talking points. And Isbell recognizes that the story of a family fractured by an ocean is a human story not much different from his own. Such an understanding produces a spectacular performance that cannot be reduced to mere politics. It may also inspire politics that cannot be reduced to mere performance.

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