What can I possibly say about Jason Isbell that will accurately express what his music means to me? Since his days with Drive-By Truckers, his songs have consistently had the ability to dissolve me into a puddle of tears. Beginning at the tender age of 21, his songwriting abilities were beyond reproach. Jason has been quite open about his alcoholism and struggles with sobriety.While many artists lose the creative edge they once had while they were on the bottle, Isbell’s lyrics have only grown more gorgeous, inspired and true even as he remains clean and sober.
This show was the third in which I’ve seen Isbell and his incredible band this year. But quite a few things made it different for me. First, this blog is in full swing. Secondly, my son has fallen in love with Jason’s music and was coming along with me to the show, and thirdly, I have experienced some life changing stuff as of late. Things that made me wonder if I could even tolerate listening to some of the songs that have meant so much to me.
Some interesting things happened before the show even started. My son and I were befriended by a homeless woman while we waited in line. She sang to us in a voice that was awe-inspiring, recited some of her hand-written poetry and made us laugh until our sides ached. We gave her money for a nice hot supper (maybe, but no matter where the money went, I don’t regret the human connection we made) and remembered what it was like to be human beings, all in this world together. This feels so rare these days with so much hate going on in the world.
When we got up to my usual spot right in front of the stage, we began talking to two very nice gentlemen. After about an hour of chit-chat, it was discovered that one of these men had lost a teenaged son to cancer. It made my heart ache to hear him tell his story. But it soon began to dawn on me that his son sounded familiar to me. And when he showed me a picture, I realized that he had been a massage therapy patient of mine at the local children’s hospital. What an incredibly small and connected world we all live in.
After our encounter with the beautiful woman who hadn’t lost the song in her heart, despite wondering where she would sleep or her next meal would come from, or the man who got through the loss of his son by writing and listening to gorgeous music, I sucked it up and decided that tears or no tears, none of my tiny little problems meant anything when compared to those of some. And I resolved that songs I wondered if I could make it through were going to be the songs that made me realize that life and loss are always beautiful if you allow them to be. I was ready for this show.
Josh Ritter was an incredibly good opening act. There is no doubt that his star is rapidly on the rise and that he won’t be opening shows much longer. And when Jason came on, I realized that it wouldn’t be long before venues the size of this one were soon going to be in the past for Isbell and his band. His star is rising so quickly it’s unstoppable at this point. As the first chords of Flying Over Water played I held onto my heart and hitched myself along for the ride.
Jason Isbell is known for his lyrics. At least, he should be. It seems as if every song he writes is more beautifully crafted than the last. The set list included 24 Frames “This is how you talk to her when no-one else is listening and this is how you help her when the muse goes missing you vanish so she can go drowning on her dream again. You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow and everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames, in 24 frames.” , the epically beautiful Elephant, which is about a man who loses his friend to cancer and Cover Me Up, which I consider to be the most beautiful love song of all time. It always gets the loudest cheers of any of the songs in the setlist when Isbell sings the line “I sobered up, and swore off that stuff, forever this time”. (Isbell attributes his sobriety to wife, Amanda Shires, whom this song was written for). I can honestly say that there wasn’t a song in the entire setlist that didn’t make my heart swoon in one way or another. This man reads souls. He can delve that deeply into what we feel as human beings.
In addition to the gorgeous lyrics, Jason is a true performer, and his band stands right up behind him with the same star quality.The audience was as enthralled as I was and you could hear a pin drop during the most lovely and reflective of the songs played that night. It’s not often a musician takes the scenic route in his quest for stardom. Jason has had his ups and his downs and taken his sweet time getting here. But there is absolutely no question in my mind that the next time I see him, it will not be in a cozy little venue, but in a stadium, where thousands of people stand with me to appreciate his genius. And it makes me a little bit sad, but so proud of someone so deserving of the title of star.