If you're a regular NPR listener, you may have noticed that Jason Isbell's latest, Southeastern, has received about as much public radio coverage as Bruce Springsteen gets Rolling Stone love. Which is to say, a lot. First there was an on-air review, then a story on All Things Considered and finally, the ultimate score: a 45-minute Fresh Air gabfest with Terry Gross.
It's hard enough to get just one of those slots, and beyond rare to go three for three. And that's only a fraction of the positive media attention Isbell's attracted of late. He's also been featured in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and critics at RS, Spin, Paste, Pitchfork and The A.V. Club have sung the effusive praises of Southeastern. Plus he recently performed on Letterman. The sensibilities of mainstream, highbrow and hipster outlets don't always — or even usually — overlap, but Isbell managed to appeal to them all.
Southeastern moved 17,500 units, which was good enough for a No. 23 debut on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart, and highly respectable for any midlevel act. And here's another highly respectable stat: This Saturday night, Isbell will headline a sold-out Ryman Auditorium. It's safe to say that summer 2013 has been the breakthrough season of his solo career to date.
The songwriting on Southeastern is potent, penetrating and positively hard to shake, and it's good for the soul — and the music critic's vindicated ego — to see it go over so well. But there's more to this story than the triumph of the all-American underdog. Musical success is, after all, a cruelly inexact science. And dues-paying — something Isbell has done plenty of — doesn't guarantee a damn thing. In Americana, Isbell's corner of the musical landscape, there've been seasoned practitioners who've remained cult heroes, as well as folk rockers whose galvanizing sing-alongs have helped them blow up seemingly overnight.
Isbell isn't riding any "Ho Hey"-type rocket. He's written crowd-rousing tunes before, but that wasn't where his head was at with this latest batch. With the exception of the Stones-y "Super 8" and the red-blooded riffing of "Flying Over Water," Southeastern is a marked departure from the sinewy Southern rock 'n' soul attack of Isbell's previous albums. What he's grabbed all these ears with is an intimate, raw-to-the-touch singer-songwriter set.
"Well, it was time to do something different," says Isbell. "A lot of people who I have a lot of respect for their ability to write songs, they wind up making the same record over and over. That's frustrating to me, and I wanted to avoid that. Really, it was [producer] Dave Cobb. I don't think he had any overarching ideas that didn't go along directly with the nature of the songs."
As for the nature of the songs, Isbell's narrators are battered but unflinching, and human through and through. Some have scraped the bottom, others were headed there, and every last one of them has been none-too-gently shaken awake. Without excuse-making or self-pity, they're simply trying to salvage what they can — they're trying to give a drinking buddy some company in her final, cancer-ravaged days ("Elephant"), to trade outlaw ways for sin-haunted romance ("Live Oak"), to cling, white-knuckled, to a second chance for connection ("Cover Me Up").
The stories unfold at close range, in elegantly prickly detail, and stand on their own as first-order songwriting. But another story comes up in every analysis of Southeastern: Isbell's own journey from addiction through rehab to getting hitched.
"I think that there was a story to work with on this album, aside from the quality of the material, which I'm proud of," Isbell says. "So to me it makes sense that more people would pay attention to it. But there was also a narrative that went along with the release of this particular record that I think people could latch onto."
There's no overestimating how attractive a juicy back-story is to a journalist, as context for an album or grist for the interview mill. In the New York Times feature, Dwight Garner summarized the one-two punch of autobiography and creative output: "Jason Isbell's redemption on Southeastern is one of the best stories American music has to tell in 2013." Of course, significant moments in Isbell's redemption story were set in Nashville. He did his rehab at Cumberland Heights, then moved here permanently to be with fiddler-songwriter Amanda Shires, the one who'd really held his feet to the fire about getting clean. They simultaneously wrote each of their new albums in the townhouse they share on the outskirts of Nashville, and were married in a local ceremony with Todd Snider officiating.
There's a seriously happy ending to this grounded fairytale: The demons were overcome, the lead characters fell deeply in love, and the good art didn't finish last. In the case of the latter, it certainly hasn't hurt the success of Isbell's album that he's let people in on the ugliness of his struggles. Feminism taught us that the personal is political, and cultural criticism's tacked on another lesson: that the personal can be powerful. Sometimes we really do care more, and connect more deeply, with the work of someone who's willing to talk frankly and articulately about their breakdowns and — once the genie's been let out of the bottle — keep on fielding questions.
"It's a little bit daunting to put that stuff out there, yeah," says Isbell. "You wonder, 'Is this gonna be my story?' But I think that's part of the point too, is refuting that. ... I don't mind talking about it, because I do feel like that part will help people, maybe not a whole lot of people, but I think somebody somewhere is reading an interview that [says] you can quit drinking and not just be a person who quit drinking after that."
God is dead.
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