Jason Isbell raises the question — how best to sing about speed trap towns?

Americana songwriter and his band played an introspective set at the Sprint Pavilion

ae-jasonisbell-courtesywikimediacommons

Jason Isbell played a show at the Sprint Pavilion Sunday with his band the 400 Unit, putting an introspective twist on the country genre.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Now I’m going to sing a song about football and trucks,” said Jason Isbell in the middle of his concert at the Sprint Pavilion last Sunday. Isbell and his band then played “Speed Trap Town,” a song from the singer-songwriter’s third solo album, “Something More Than Free.” The Charlottesville concert wrapped up the summer tour for Isbell and his band The 400 Unit.

“Speed Trap Town” — and Isbell’s tongue-in-cheek introduction — exemplify Isbell’s unconventional position in the country music landscape. The song is, in fact, about football and trucks, but it’s unlike anything on the top country charts. 

First of all, the song is brilliantly written. Great songwriting is an exercise in compression, and few have an eye for detail like Isbell. The narrator of “Speed Trap Town” sings about his father — “Was a tough state trooper 'til a decade back / When that girl who wasn't mama caused his heart attack / He didn’t care about us when he was walking around / Just pulling women over in a speed trap town.” Those four lines have more character development than some novels. 

Another standout piece of songwriting is “Elephant,” which Isbell performed on Sunday with only an acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. “She said Andy, you're better than your past,” the song begins. “Winked at me and drained her glass / Cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore.” That opening is nothing short of miraculous. In just three lines, Isbell shapes a complicated relationship between two lifelike characters. He sketches the woman’s personality through her mannerisms. He begins to allude to the characters’ dependence on each other, a theme that continues throughout the song. He establishes a setting. 

“Elephant” is a song about cancer. It grows as it goes, each verse more devastating than the last. “I'd sing her classic country songs, she'd get high and sing along,” Isbell sings. “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.” When Isbell finished “Elephant” the band returned and immediately moved in to the more upbeat “Cumberland Gap,” but the rock chords couldn’t clear the air. “Elephant” left everyone in the Pavilion weak in the knees.

Isbell’s songwriting has earned him plenty of acclaim over the past few years. He’s won four Grammys. He was briefly given an exhibit in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor about which he expressed ambivalence.

“It’s a little weird, because I didn’t grow up wanting to be a country singer, and I still don’t really see myself as one,” Isbell told Men’s Journal in 2017. “I mean, I don’t feel like I have much in common with those folks. Their job is to sell out arenas. Mine is to make art. Big difference.” 

Despite Isbell’s suggestions to the contrary, he has inherited much from the tradition of great country music, much more than just his Alabama accent and his propensity for a twanging guitar. Johnny Cash and George Jones and all the rest of the old country greats had a few things in common. Good country music has always had a penchant for narrative. As “Elephant” shows, Isbell can craft a narrative with breathtaking texture and depth. Additionally, the genre succeeds when its singers are willing to show some vulnerability. That might mean Merle Haggard wishing he’d listened to his mother, or just George Strait bending his baritone voice down a half step on a long note. Isbell is a recovering alcoholic. His first band, Drive-By Truckers, kicked him out for bad behavior. Storytelling and sincerity are hallmarks of his music.

Narrative and vulnerability are not in vogue in mainstream country, however. For the last 18 weeks, Florida Georgia Line’s treacly ode “Simple” occupied a spot on the top charts. The lyrics are — surprise! — pretty simple. “Ain’t no need to complicate it / we both know that’s overrated,” the duo sings. A peppy whistle bounces through the background. The 21st century has seen country music evolve into the genre of beer, trucks and women, as evidenced by the discography of odious mega-stars like Luke Bryan and Toby Keith. It’s understandable that Isbell would seek to distance himself from “country” in the modern sense of the word.

Isbell’s south shares very little with the boisterous, romanticized south of Florida Georgia Line and company. The difference becomes apparent in a song like “Speed Trap Town,” when Isbell consciously appropriates the genre’s cliches. “Those 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss,” his narrator muses as he sits, drinking at the top of the bleachers. Compare this to popular bro-country singer Billy Currington’s version of a high school football game. “We’re a drinking town with a football problem,” Currington croons on a 2015 song of the same name, “we love ‘em both and don’t want to solve ‘em.” Then a pleasant chorus of “hey y’all” comes in, assuring everyone that drinking and football are glorious American institutions in equal measure. The song comes from Currington’s album “Summer Forever.” 

For Isbell’s characters, summer never lasts forever — indeed, Isbell’s songs usually start just as summer is ending. “The river can't take me back in time / And daddy's dead and gone,” sings the narrator in Isbell’s “Last of my Kind,” another song which Isbell played at the Pavilion. “In the family farm's a parking lot for Walton's five and dime / Am I the last of my kind?” 

Isbell and the pop-country mainstream represented by Currington paint such different portraits of the same subjects that it seems like someone must be lying. Pop-country’s south seems like a raucous good time, the star-spangled party broken up only occasionally by a palatably bittersweet ode. Isbell’s south is hard and sad and lonely, only infrequently veering into more familiar pastoral idylls. It can be hard to stomach the idea that Isbell’s version may be the truer of the two. The comparison raises difficult questions about how pop culture and rural life interact. Does glamorizing small-town life perpetuate the problems faced by rural communities? How can music balance a healthy dose of local pride with an honest understanding of rural America’s often bleak realities? These questions have no easy answers.

Isbell is an outspoken liberal, which further alienates him from the country mainstream. He recently told the Guardian that “Jesus would not have voted for Donald Trump,” a quip which earned the musician a scurrilous Breitbart profile. Isbell previously drew the ire of conservatives for his song “White Man’s World,” a song about his own white privilege. “Don’t be ashamed of your roots,” tweeted one conservative commentator after Isbell played the song in Charlotte, N.C. last month. 

“I’m not ashamed of a damn thing,” Isbell replied. Yes, at times he leans in to the desolation he sees in his homeland, but he never chastises the people in his songs. Instead, he’s empathetic. The characters in Isbell’s songs are broken, lost, down on their luck. Yet they are drawn, always, with empathy. This is perhaps the greatest trick in his considerable songwriting repertoire, the trick that allows him to craft such delicate, rich narratives and characters. Whether it’s the overwhelmed young addict in “Last of My Kind” or the washed-up wanderer in “Speed Trap Town,” Isbell’s southerners are always vulnerable and always forgivable. 

It seems unlikely that the modest Isbell would profess to know any answers to the big questions facing country music, but his commitment to honest detail and his compassionate soul provide a blueprint for at least a good first step. Isbell is one of the finest writers currently working in any medium, the kind of artist who can, in just a few lines, craft characters and stories that bring an arena to the verge of tears. With any luck, he will not be the last of his kind.

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