Different Days

Editor’s note for Sept/Oct 2013 issue of American Songwriter.

Three years ago I saw Jason Isbell perform aboard the deck of a Carnival cruise ship. He played one muggy evening just as our ship made the turn around the northwest tip of Cuba, on its way to Grand Cayman island. The turnout for that night’s show was weak. Maybe five or six people on deck. I watched with two American Songwriter colleagues and a central Florida version of Snooki from Jersey Shore.

 Isbell did not seem to be enjoying himself. At one point during his set, he clamored for a drink, so we brought him a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. He then launched into “Goddamn Lonely Love” from his Drive-By Trucker days and said the song was about his ex-wife. He followed that with the amped-up “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest.  If you said “lonesome” was a theme that night, you would not be wrong.

 Isbell and his band the 400 Unit were one of a dozen or so acts playing the “Sailing Southern Ground cruise,” a four-day floating music festival put together by the Zac Brown Band. This quixotic, maritime voyage took us from Tampa to Grand Cayman and back over Labor Day weekend in 2010. American Songwriter pulled duty as the media sponsor.

 By day three AS had come to know the pangs of sea life. Snookies multiplied like Gremlins in the oversized hot tubs. Midnight buffet raids lost their magic. Guitar solos began to sound like caterwauls. One night we lost all grip on reality and conducted a series of on-camera interviews with hapless cruise-goers that we called “Experiments In Journalism.” Those videos have since been deleted from all recording devices.

 Isbell’s performances that week on the ship – I think we caught three or four – proved to be our only relief, and they would have been enough had we only heard “Decoration Day” and “Outfit.”

 The former Drive-By Trucker’s career has come far since that week on the Inspiration. His new album, Southeastern, has been met with near-universal acclaim. As a friend put it, “it just makes all other records look bad.” And as this issue goes to press, Isbell is about to play a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music.

By Isbell’s account, his personal life seems to be at an all-time high, thanks in large part to a recent marriage and newfound sobriety. Southeastern documents – with a poet’s eye and without a trace of maudlin sap – his comeback story. It is not a confessional album per se. Themes of loss and redemption are woven into a larger tale, featuring a mosaic of characters that include killers on the run and cancer victims. There is a multi-dimensional quality to the writing that other songwriting “legends” would stumble in vain to capture.

I met the album’s producer, Dave Cobb, at a party recently and said closing track “Relatively Easy” was my personal favorite. He was surprised. “Really? That was the first song we cut. And those usually don’t make the album.”

The speaker in “Relatively Easy” recounts the suicide of a close friend, his own personal breakdown, and then curiously ponders the life of a stranger he passes in the street, wondering whether this man is alone or in love. He punctuates all this by telling his girl that “…  compared to people on a global scale / Our kind has had it relatively easy / Here with you, there’s always something to look forward to / My angry heart beats relatively easy.”

It’s a sentiment worth remembering.

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