Jesse Kornbluth, on opening up to country—but more so to a stunning young artist with powerful songs.
These lines — the opening lines of “24 Frames” — may not reduce you to protoplasm.
They pretty much did me in:
This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing
And this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she
Gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing
I can’t be the only one who’s grateful for a lover’s attention when his recent life looked like a series of defeats, because “Something More Than Free” is a popular favorite in my immediate circle. Which is the alt-country crowd. Which my friend Don Schlitz, who wrote “The Gambler” and a slew of country and alt-country hits, defines as “the only genre with more artists than fans.”
You are not fans of any kind of country. I know that. And although I generally accept the proposition that the customer is always right, may I urge you, just this once, to watch the video.
Or maybe you’d prefer to see him sing it, accompanied on violin and vocals by his pregnant wife Amanda Shires Isbell:
Here’s the hard sell: This CD is much bigger than country. Yes, it opened at No. 1 on the Billboard country music chart and No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart the week after its release, but as I write it’s No. 2 on Amazon music. In his songs, you’ll hear Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. I ask you: Do country lyrics tell you that it can all change in a minute? Do country lyrics remind you of Joan Didion?
You thought God was an architect, now you know
And everything you built
it’s all for show; goes up in flames.
In 24 frames.
But let’s not fudge the facts. Jason Isbell is from Alabama. His songs are mostly about “people who aren’t leading the same kind of life that I am, people who might not get the same kind of rewards for their work” — country people, Southern people. Translation: People who trade time for money. Given that definition, that’s very often me, and maybe you too.
Jason Isbell didn’t zoom out of nowhere. “Something More Than Free” is his 6th CD. Along the way, he got divorced, got remarried, got sober, and, in 2013, released a CD called “Southeastern.” Walter Kirn has said of that CD:
A troubled young troubadour, newly married, stepped away from the darkness of addiction into a new, uncertain life of clarity and commitment, reflecting ruefully on his hard won victories and the price he paid attaining them.
That CD swept the 2014 Americana Music Awards, winning Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. The people who love it love it a lot — like a religious artifact. [To buy the CD of “Southeastern” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Two more items, both optional, the last one very much optional.
I’m fascinated by work-in-progress. Here’s a look at the creation of “24 Frames.”
Finally, on “Southeastern,” Isbell has a song called “Elephant.” It’s about cancer, and a friend/lover who died of it. The lyrics are painful in the extreme:
If I’d fucked her before she got sick I’d never hear the end of it
She don’t have the spirit for that now
We just drink our drinks and laugh out loud
And bitch about the weekend crowd
And try to ignore the elephant somehow
The video is even tougher. But if you’ve ever been there, you may find yourself shaking your head: Yes, this is how it was.
Jason Isbell. You may not want him now. But you’ll have many chances to change your mind.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.