Top 10 Jason Isbell Songs
Jason Isbell has had a dynamite few years: Not only did the former Drive-By Truckers member marry Amanda Shires, a talented songwriter and fiddle player in her own right, and have an adorable baby girl with her, but his career has shifted into overdrive.
Isbell teamed up with producer Dave Cobb for 2013’s critically acclaimed Southeastern, which led to him winning Album of the Year and Artist of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards, and the momentum continued with 2015’s Something More Than Free. The latter LP won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, while the record’s “24 Frames” won Best American Roots Song. And as if that wasn’t enough, Isbell’s spent most of 2016 touring and playing to bigger and bigger audiences.
Isbell’s catalog is full of gems, but the following are The Boot’s picks for his Top 10 tunes.
“Down in a Hole”
The rich, fat-cat protagonist of this early Isbell solo song is “trouble,” from his penchant for redevelopment to the way he (mis)treats his daughters and employees. The tune’s music emphasizes the lyrical wariness: Organ courtesy of Spooner Oldham and bass from David Hood (the father of Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers bandmate Patterson Hood) help create a simmering, sultry-blues vibe.
“Go It Alone”
This plugged-in song highlights Isbell’s grittier, bar-band country-blues side. Credited to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the song features a protagonist who’s come to terms with the fact he has to press restart on his life — in part because he’s lost a woman, presumably due to divorce — to try to regain equilibrium: “I’m realizing just how far I had to fall / And taking it home to go it alone again.”
One of Isbell’s most moving, harrowing songs on Southeastern is “Elephant,” which describes what happens when one-half of a pair of “drinking buddies” is slowly dying of cancer. Atop strident, braided acoustic guitar and piano, Isbell describes silly joys (complaining about weekend warriors), reality-check side effects (losing hair and singing voice) and the private pain of the “elephant” in the room: “Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.”
“Speed Trap Town”
“Speed Trap Town” is deceptively simple. Intimate acoustic guitar, sprinkles of piano and — near the end of the song — a wistful electric guitar solo leave room for the lyrics to take center stage. Lyrically, “Speed Trap Town” is quietly devastating and hopeful: The song runs through the inner monologue of a protagonist who sets aside his guilt (and complicated feelings about his father) and realizes that he can leave his small town behind and find his own way.
Credited to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, this Americana Music Award-winning song presaged the stripped-back, straight-shooting direction that Isbell would take on future solo albums. The protagonist feels unmoored from the place where he grew up — longing for its familiar quirks, but knowing that he can’t replicate the past. Longing fiddle weaves through the story, capturing the circuitous lifestyle with which the protagonist has dealt.
This 2013 Isbell song acutely captures the crushing loneliness of the open road, especially when you’re traveling by yourself and longing for a companion: “I know every town worth passing through,” he says. “But what good does knowing do with no one to show it to?” Shires adds elegiac fiddle and subtle backing vocals to the song, amplifying its ache.
“Something More Than Free”
The title track to Isbell’s Grammy-winning 2015 album doubles as a thesis statement for his entire career. The main character is grateful to be alive and working — “I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do” — even if it’s exhausting, because he’s striving for something greater, both spiritual and personal. Lovely, gratitude-filled fiddle from Shires matches Isbell’s solemn, worn-in vocals, which only make the song more meaningful.
This song finds a character who’s humbled by his own shortcomings and trying to reconnect with things that matter — family, love and selflessness — while recalibrating his sense of the world. Musically, it resembles the laid-back alt-country favored by Wilco in the ’90s, with a splash of R.E.M.’s jangle thrown in for good measure.
Zac Brown Band popularized this song by covering it on their 2015 album Jekyll + Hyde. It’s easy to see why the band was drawn to the song: Isbell’s original — which was inspired by a high school acquaintance, Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, who was killed while in the line of duty — is a wrenching, plainspoken remembrance of war’s casualties.
“Cover Me Up”
Isbell’s straightforward song about getting sober and opening himself up to wife Shires is one of his best — simply because it is so vulnerable and deeply felt.
“That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal,” he told NPR in 2013. “It’s not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say, ‘This is how much I love you,’ you know? It’s scary to do that.”