Jason Isbell w. John Moreland
The Englert — Tuesday, July 7 at 8 p.m.
In the American South you will find the keys to our chief musical exports in blues, jazz, bluegrass and rock and roll, the keys to our national literary voice in William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, and the keys to our national shame, felt so sharply in recent weeks.
Songwriter (and guitar shredder) Jason Isbell is a leading contemporary light in that embroiled tradition. During his brief but notable stint in alt-country powerhouse Drive-By Truckers, he contributed some of the essential songs in their still-expanding catalog. “Decoration Day,” the title track from the band’s 2003 album is as strong an example of Southern Gothic as any.
I never knew how it all got started
A problem with Holland before we were born
And I don’t know the name of that boy we tied down
And beat till he just couldn’t walk anymore.
But I know the caliber in daddy’s chest
And I know what Holland Hill drives.
The state let him go, but I guess it was best
‘Cause nobody needs all us Lawson’s alive.
DBT’s frontman Patterson Hood was quoted in a 2013 New York Times feature on Isbell, “I knew we’d struck gold,” he said. “This chubby kid — he was 22 but looked like he was 15 — was going to be one of the great songwriters of our time.”
After a six-year run, though, Isbell was asked to leave the band. This heartbreak paired with another — his divorce from DBT bass player Shonna Tucker — contributed to excessive drinking, and Isbell fell into the kind of hard luck he often portrayed in his music.
After entering rehab at the behest of his then-girlfriend, now-wife Amanda Shires, Isbell cleaned up and in 2013 released what has been regarded as the peak of his songwriting: Southeastern. Year-end lists sung Isbell’s praises, and the album achieved a metacritic score of 88/100.
Isbell’s much anticipated follow up, Something More Than Free, will be released on July 17, and all signs point to an upward continuation of his arc. Even Isbell tweeted, “I think these songs are better than the Southeastern batch.” Iowa City audiences will be among the first to experience the songs live, as he is set to perform on July 7 at the Englert Theatre.
One of the things that has become clear recently is that the conflicts some might prefer to associate with the south are most definitely a national struggle. In the opening track on Something More Than Free, Isbell sings, “My day will come if it takes a lifetime.” If there is an allegory between Isbell’s life, his art, and the tumult of the southern tradition he operates in, it’s one that doesn’t flinch in taking internal repairs head-on, and promises that — if we are willing to do the same — our country’s very best work will be waiting for us on the other side.