Jason Isbell tells an amusing tale about meeting Bruce Springsteen a few years back and being bowled over when The Boss began to sing the chorus of a familiar song…
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?
For the revered elder statesman to lavish praise on the burgeoning songwriter’s 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern and one track in particular must have been a proud moment for Isbell. Springsteen is the artist he has been most compared with, a burden he has carried reluctantly yet valiantly.
‘He goes: “My son brought your record home, and I really liked that song” – and then he started singing Traveling Alone,’ Isbell told Rolling Stone. ‘And I’m standing there thinking, ‘He’s singing my song in a Bruce Springsteen voice!’ He was super sweet. I was beside myself. I mean, it’s Bruce Springsteen. He really lived up to all the hype.’
He added tellingly: ‘If I’d come along in the Seventies, I probably would have been a much bigger star [than now], and I would’ve had a lot more money. And I would be dead. It would not have turned out well.’
On the acclaimed Dave Cobb-produced Southeastern, Isbell refrains from wallowing in his dark descent into alcohol addiction, more concerned with the upward curve of his recovery. The author of compelling, nuanced stories wouldn’t have remembered much about rock bottom, anyway. But there were truths to be pursued and Isbell continues to track them down through his cast of largely fictional characters. He is renowned for tackling life’s difficult subjects; you never know, the impact of the global pandemic might be a topic for his mighty pen in the future.
In Traveling Alone, the 41-year-old Nashville-based musician is talking to his lover Amanda Shires, who had coaxed him into rehab. Fellow singer-songwriter Shires interrupted her solo career last year to found the supergroup The Highwomen with Brandi Carlile and still finds time to double up as a member of Isbell's backing band The 400 Unit, her plaintive fiddle a foil for the frontman’s distinctive Alabama drawl. They married two days after they had completed recording Southeastern, his fourth studio album.
This is no world-weary road song but a landmark moment of self-awareness after a life of wrong turns and ‘fighting second gear’…
I quit talking to myself Listening to the radio Long, long time ago Damn near strangled by my appetite Ybor City on a Friday night Couldn’t even stand up right
So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay They said come see me on a better day She just danced away
Cover Me Up, the album opener, is a memorable love song to Shires, its melody (like that of Bob Dylan’s 4th Time Around) owing a small debt to The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. ‘I sobered up and I swore off that stuff/ Forever this time,’ the balladeer sings, his impressive slide guitar heightening the emotion.
Isbell’s intelligent, confessional lyrics are notable for their dry wit but he is more likely to induce tears than laughter – as in Elephant on Southeastern in which the unspeakable enemy that is cancer is the elephant in the room. A lament to a dying friend ends with the crushing lines: ‘There's one thing that's real clear to me/ No one dies with dignity/ We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.’
In the equally magnificent If We Were Vampires from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, a couple (he and Shires, we assume) grapple with the fragility of life, the painful awareness that one of them will die first: ‘Maybe we'll get forty years together/ But one day I’ll be gone/ Or one day you'll be gone.’ The track is a former Song Of The Week on this website.
The Muscle Shoals native said in that Rolling Stone interview: ‘If you make somebody make some type of noise unintentionally, you’re doing a pretty good job as a songwriter. But there’s something about the sad songs where it’s not just sad, there’s a resilience, and I think that’s what really affects people. When you’re painting a picture of people who insist on pushing through and surviving, that’s where people really get moved, because that is at the heart of the human experience.’
Isbell has a tattoo on his left forearm quoting lines from Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather: ‘Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled/ From across that lonesome ocean.’ He explained: ‘It's kind of a salvage song. It’s about loss, but it’s also about taking something away from that.’
He told The Independent after Southeastern’s release: ‘I hope there is hope in my material – it’s not tragic or bitter, I don’t think it comes off like a disaster this record – but it’s very dark. It’s a cathartic kind of thing for me: I write best when I’m doing it for therapy, to explain the way I feel about things to myself.’
His treasury of soulful, rootsy Americana is deep and enriching: Different Days and Songs That She Sang In The Shower from Southeastern; 24 Frames and the Springsteen-esque Speed Trap Town from 2015’s Something More Than Free; the moving Last Of My Kind, Hope The High Road and the politically charged White Man’s World from The Nashville Sound.
Isbell wrote Maybe It’s Time for Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson Maine in the movie A Star Is Born, which also starred Lady Gaga. Cooper could have been playing Isbell’s former self in those hedonistic days with southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, whom he left in 2007. ‘It takes a lot to change a man/ Hell, it takes a lot to try/ Maybe it's time to let the old ways die.’ From hell-raiser to writer of heavenly songs.
The challenge of staying sober – he has been hitched to that wagon for eight years now – is a constant theme and is confronted again on his forthcoming album Reunions with the poignant It Gets Easier. We’ve already heard advanced tracks Be Afraid (a rallying cry to artists to use their powerful voices to provoke change), What’ve I Done To Help and Only Children; another masterpiece awaits.
Isbell acknowledges that the obligation of the songwriter is to offer hope. It is a lifeline he has clung on to himself during the long private battle he has gone public with. His honesty is unsettling, often brutal, but after all the demons he has found a guardian angel. With someone to ride with him, Isbell does not have to travel alone.