Jason Isbell | 10 Songs, 10 Stories

Photo by Jason Gonulsen

Happy Valentine’s Day. Jason Isbell plays the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis tonight, and while I will miss the show (I’m still dealing with an ear injury), that doesn’t mean I can’t write about his songs and what they’ve meant to me.

If you don’t have plans tonight, go to this alone. Go with a friend. Go with a lover. Take your mom, take your dad. Your life will be better.

Tickets are available.

Maybe you’ll hear a few of these.

I should say I keep your picture with me every day
The evenings now are relatively easy
Here with you there’s always something to look forward to
My lonely heart beats relatively easy
My lonely heart beats relatively easy 

I believe in repetition, in memory, in not giving up. I keep a picture of my late Grandpa beside my turntable. It rests beside a wool baseball cap with a St. Louis Cardinals patch sewed on the front. The cap was his. The memories are mine.

Watch your speed in Boiling Springs
They ain’t got a thing to do. They’ll get you every time
Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines

Isbell ain’t lying. On a road trip to Mobile in 1990-something, my dad got pulled over and proceeded to get out of the car before the tall Alabama cop got out of his. “Sir, stay in your vehicle!” “Let me explain,” my dad said in a Turkish accent. In end, the final words from the cop: “Welcome to Alabama!” No ticket, only a warning. And oh, those pines are nice.

If there’s two things that I hate
It’s having to cook and trying to date
Busting ass all day to play hurry up and wait

I hate those things too. Well, I guess I like cooking. I definitely hate codeine. I recently had two surgeries on my ear, and while the codeine I was give does sort of make you high, it’s not worth the low when it wears off. Caffeine is more my bag. If I ever have another surgery, perhaps I’ll request an IV delivering Folgers.

Have fun and stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister’s birthday
Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus
Don’t give it away, don’t give it away

My brother and I drove to Champaign to watch Illinois play Michigan State last year, and when this song came on the shuffle, my brother said, “I like that song, but why does he have to sing about Jesus?” Oh, Tim.

It’s Decoration Day
And I’ve got a family in Mobile Bay
And they’ve never seen my daddy’s grave
But that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway

I second time I saw Jason Isbell — in the summer of 2013 at Off Broadway in St. Louis — I very clearly remember a group of 30-something, PBR-chugging bros singing every word to this song. They were standing right behind me, their hands were up in the air, and one of them yelled the lyric, “but that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway.” Then he screamed. Outside that night, it was probably 90 degrees. Inside it was too.

A heart on the run
keeps a hand on the gun
you can’t trust anyone

I spent a few years recently not trusting anyone but myself. That was a huge mistake. You can’t do it alone, and this song — this wonderful, timeless song — reminded me of that.

Take my hand baby, we’re over land
I know flying over water makes you cry
Been in the sky so long, seems like the long way home,
but I can’t for the life of me say why
Did we leave our love behind?

There’s a music festival in Louisville in July called Forecastle that you should all attend. Last year was my first one, and Isbell and his band opened with this song. Exploded with this song. I was in the photo pit, and I’ll just be honest: I put my camera down, moved off to the side, and I closed my eyes and sang. “Did we leave our love behind?” And then that solo at 2:52. Chills.

But I’d sing her classic country songs and she’d get high and sing along
She don’t have a voice to sing with now
We burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be,
And try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow

Cancer. This song’s about cancer. But it’s about so many other things too. It’s about loneliness, and maybe finding those moments when you forget the pain. Who do you think about in those moments?

There’s a man who walks beside her, he is who I used to be,
and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me

Going back to that road trip to Champaign with my brother. He had never heard this song before, but I swear he started singing anyway. “There’s a man who walks beside her, he is used who I used to be.”

I know every town worth passing through,
but what good does knowing do
with no one to show it to

I love solo road trips, and the last one I took to Chicago was immediately healing. People ask me all the time why I drive 5 hours to see live music, stay in a city for one night, and then drive back. And my answer is mostly because it’s the thrill of the unknown; I learn something new every trip. Southeastern is an album about confronting loneliness. It’s about all those hours listening to your thoughts. And it’s about realizing that eventually you’ll want to share those with someone else.

And the songs that she sang in the shower are stuck in my mind
Like ‘Yesterday’s Wine,’ Like ‘Yesterday’s Wine’
And experience tells me that I’ll never hear them again
Without thinking of then, without thinking of then

The first time I heard those lines, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Voices leave their mark.

Jason Isbell w/ Damien Jurado tonight at The Peabody in St. Louis. $35-45. 8PM.

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