Issue #11: JASON ISBELL
On Weathervanes, death, love and listening like a mother
There’s this thing – one of those things you probably only know about if you spend too much time on Twitter, the kind of thing that would actually make no noise at all if it happened unheard in the forest – about Jason Isbell and sportswriters. If you haven’t been following, or didn’t read the article on the “phenomenon,” I’ll give you the gist: sportswriters like Jason Isbell, and they like to Tweet about it. That’s entirely it. Actually, no, it’s male sportswriters. White, male, sportswriters. They like Jason Isbell a whole lot. I’m happy for them. I like Jason Isbell a whole lot too.
I’m not particularly interested in any of this, though, in any sort of above-average way. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad they found him, and I think it’s important (if you’re a male sportswriter reading this blog post now, I like you! Stay with me here!). But someone else can dissect that: I’ve heard what men think of Isbell. I’ve read most of the album reviews and profiles for his newest with the 400 Unit, Weathervanes, primarily written by cisgender men. I’d rather talk about something else today, about what gets lost when we don’t see Isbell through a female lens in addition to all that – or even through a mother’s lens.
This is not a feminist reading of Isbell, in the academic sense, though I do think that would be interesting – start with him taking a vocal role in Amanda Shires’ song “The Problem” and turning an abortion from something the pregnant person alone has to weather to a concern amongst two equally participant people, and go from there. But I am going to write about Isbell, and his new album, as me. As a woman, as a mother, as someone on the other side of 35. I think you should hear from us too, because I know we’re all listening, and that this music means something to us.
Isbell is one of the artists I listen to most, and have seen live most. Doing the job I do, I often ask myself why. I like to understand why things move me, beyond just “they’re good.” Maybe you do too – when music is this big a part of your life, it’s good to stop and fumble around, look under the sheets, unpack the boxes. Some of that is the human stuff – the death and love stuff – that Isbell tackles so adeptly. Few things in life have helped me find peace in the reality of our fleeting existence than “If We Were Vampires,” few songs have so perfectly encapsulated the feeling of engulfing love through flaws than “Cover Me Up” or helped me remember the Devil’s promise of nostalgia or the longing I feel for moments of my youth that can’t be captured than on “Alabama Pines,” because maybe they never even existed.
I noticed something different when I took my kids to see Isbell play at the Ryman back in the fall. I’ve been to the residency there every year since it started, but being there, in the presence of my children, changed and beautifully twisted some meanings. For the first time, I didn’t hear “If We Were Vampires” as based in romantic love. I heard it as a parent, and the words “maybe we’ll get forty years together” hit me in the gut as if I was in a free-falling elevator with no signs of bottoming out. One day I’ll be gone. One day they’ll be gone. And I did that stupid thing that parents do, which is grab their kids and hug them until they’re annoyed and scream “ugh!” and all you can do is squeeze for one second longer until it’s over and it doesn’t matter if they didn’t know why. You knew why.
I don’t know if Isbell was thinking about parenthood when he created “If We Were Vampires.” He was a father when he wrote it, his daughter Mercy still little. I think it only matters that he was trying to figure out a way for us to live with the fact we’re going to die, and to love people fully with that knowledge – that it’s worth loving, in fact, to make life worth leaving. I don’t think you have to be a father to understand that, but I think you have to be someone who spends time thinking about the world from a perspective of a caretaker or caregiver, and someone who leaves space in a song. I think Isbell spends time writing lyrics that help shine a light on the human condition, but doing so in a way that recognizes all experiences as part of that. Because of that, I feel heard in his music. I hear me, and questions I want are answered. I think he writes like a mother sometimes. I thought this as I squeezed my kids that night until they wiggled out of my arms like a straitjacket.
“She’ll be driving in the fall,” Isbell sings on “Miles,” the album closer on Weathervanes. It seems that Isbell has a tradition now of ending LP’s with gut-punch songs about parenthood – “Letting You Go” from Reunions before this. “Miles” is different, it hurts in different ways. It stretches for seven minutes to give us space and time to think through our mistakes, through the moments we wish went a different way, or we wish we acted a different way. The times we yelled too much, were gone too long. There are different movements, textures, roads, in the song (shout out to Gena Johnson for her masterful engineering on this record, alongside Matt Ross-Spang), and in life.
I heard someone describe Isbell’s music as “throwback” once, and I get what they were saying, at some level: it can look like a relic when you see someone singing on stage with a guitar, backed by more guitars, no pomp or circumstance or synths or signals of “modern times.” But it’s not correct. We’re programmed now to think of rock music and singer-songwriters as something on fast decay, hanging on by a fraying rope, unless we comfortably describe it as “Americana,” in which case the throwback-ness is part of the recipe if not what they’re trying to get out of the oven to begin with. Rather, Weathervanes is an album of modern concerns, of living with and through this moment, our moment, the small pains and the otherworldly harm we cause ourselves and others. Of how much we should love, knowing it ends.
“Can we keep her here at home instead?” Isbell wonders on “Save The World.” This is a text I’ve sent almost verbatim to my mom friends after every school shooting, most recently after the horrific tragedy in our town at Covenant. I hear the pleas in this song, the message it carries about the importance of action. But I also hear a mother, a father. I hear the concerns that plague me everyday at drop-off, I hear an understanding for the difficulties of smiling and being hopeful for our kids while terror hits our bones. I hear a man who seems to not ascribe to bullshit beliefs about having to be the dominant one, the “strong” one, who isn’t afraid to fall apart. I think he knows which of us get the rap for being too “emotional” when we’re the ones keeping the house from falling. “Daddy worked hard,” he sings on “Volunteer.” “Mama worked harder.”
There are a lot of apologies on Weathervanes. A lot of men realize with time they made mistakes, didn’t do the right thing, even the simple right thing – not to excuse it, but to understand it, like he sings on “White Beretta.” It’s a revelatory song for that reason. We never hear this side of the story: the person with the uterus is the one who has to deal with the abortion. The man on this song knows the gift of ignorance we grace men with so easily. He is thinking here about the mothers, or how the moments we don’t become one can leave as big an impression as a baby in our arms. He is thinking how it’s never to late to learn, to make it right.
We need to think about who we hurt, and how we do it, even if we didn’t mean to cause that pain. On “Middle Of the Morning” – god, what a vocal performance, too – the song’s protagonist is hurting. He’s trying to do what they say helps: get some sunshine, open the windows, let the light in. He still takes his anger, his sadness, out on the people he loves. “I was raised to be a strong and silent southern man,” he sings. But there’s no such this, is there? Dismantling that idea is part of Isbell’s greatest work. A young man crying in a cowboy hat.
As is “Cast Iron Skillet,” and the ideas it contains. Isbell’s an activist, he stands up for what he thinks is right, raises money for just causes, supports politicians working to make things better and form a better south, especially. This song tells the story of why that matters and why our individual choices matter, too. In this song, the pain is caused not just by our world, but by parents. We just hold so much power to hurt those we should be protecting most, us parents doo.
What does a weathervane do, anyway? It shows us where the wind comes from, which way it’s blowing. It tries to figure out the storms and give warning, lead us in the right direction, but it can’t get it right. There are modern things that do what it does so much better, but we cling to it. It’s just going on feeling, on movement. It’s a little like a parent, simply doing the best they can. I’m grateful for songs that see me trying.