Every geographic region has its own flavors of joy and hardship. Life in southern Mississippi demands something different than the plains of Oklahoma. Job prospects in Trenton or the ports of New Jersey are different than those of Mobile or New Orleans.
Bottling The Essence
Consistently across his writing and recording, Jason Isbell is capturing probably better than anyone else the unique experience of contemporary and rural southern life.
You thought God was an architect and now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.
With that line from “24 Frames,” it’s easy to see that Something More Than Free requires more than just one good listen.
A line like this:
I don’t keep liquor here, never cared for wine or beer
And working for the county keeps me pissing clear.
. . . is comic on one level, but it also nails the vicious cycle now so common in southern rural life: Pain of personal ambition choked by lack of job prospects; add drug or alcohol addiction as a way of escape; further limit your job prospects; repeat.
It’s one thing to craft the imagery (in Something‘s “Speed Trap Town” for example), but it’s another to bottle the essence.
Even with Wal-Mart a half hour away, the country life is one that requires a different grit and know-how than what is required in urban life. Sound farfetched in 2015? Deal with a flooded dirt road in southern Alabama, a dried up well in middle Georgia, or an ice storm in the foothills of Appalachia. Sure, it’s easier now than it was in 1915, but life can be surprisingly difficult.
Meanwhile, farming isn’t what it used to be and most of the manufacturing jobs are gone. It’s a big deal when the new Kia, Mercedes, or BMW plant opens.
Then there’s military service, a related theme Isbell frequently explores. It is a fact that military enlistments have always been represented disproportionately by southerners and the trend actually continues to rise. As a result, armed conflict disproportionately impacts southern families and communities. Take a look at the lyrics from “Dress Blues”, a cut from the previous album Southeastern:
You never planned on the bombs in the sand
Or sleeping in your dress blues.
And no, Zac Brown did not write that.
As with “Dress Blues” and so much else in his work, Isbell insists on digging deeper into the southern and rural psyche – so much so that at times the writing has a Faulknerian quality. Isbell has expressed genuine surprise at the commercial success of Something More Than Free, and it’s understandable. The message in this work is contrary to the blind, usually mindless flag-waving, God-fearing, beer-guzzling stereotype peddled in what has become known as country music.
The southern existence is a lot more complicated. Indeed, country life – not just southern life – is a lot more complicated.