Sunday Music: “Weathervanes” By Jason Isbell

I’m all Isbell’d up again lately, forgive me. 

Or not. 

I was in college in the early 2000s when I fell in love with the Drive-By Truckers. I was a Johnny Cash fan from growing up, the kid who would play “Folsom Prison” in the 90s, solo on a guitar, between bands at punk rock shows, all because I grew up loving my parents’ 45s of “Boy Named Sue” and the likes. 

I had a soft spot for country-story telling, even when liking country wasn’t cool, or at least Garth Brooks and Shania Twain and “pop country” didn’t speak to me like Cash, or his Rubin-produced resurgence records, or the Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and Old 97’s CDs I was secretly buying and obsessing over in high school. 

Jason Isbell entered my life’s soundtrack around then. He never left. 

He got drunk. Got drunker. Hit bottom. Got sober. Got married. Wrote some songs about it, all along the way. 

Jefferson Cowie, in an NPR article titled, “The Rebuilt Heart of Jason Isbell,” describes Isbell now, better than I can (emphasis added):

Sincerity, his trademark, serves him well, but sometimes his persona feels a bit more learned than natural. In person, his mannerisms remind me of his 2015 cut “24 Frames,” in which he self-consciously trains himself in the day-to day requirements of being a good person: “And this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing.” So many of his songs are about an outsider peering in, searching for an opening into how the world works, and wondering about his place in it all. Along the way, he has extended an open invitation to his fans to share the journey.

Another quote from the same article, further cementing how not alone I am in being moved by his music,

“If there’s a theme to all of it,” he says, “it’s like you settle on this meaning of life, and it’s arbitrary. Pick one and stick with it, because it’s as valuable as any of them. For me, it is the work of understanding yourself and improving yourself. If I did that today, it was a good day. And if I didn’t, I’ll try again tomorrow.” He believes, above all, in work. “It’s work, just do the work, and the rewards will come.” My mind jumps to Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world,” Camus writes. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

And one last quote – this one with emphasis added:

he sees two audiences for his work. The first is those fans and critics who appreciate not only his music but the glimpses he offers into worlds they might not otherwise know, let alone be able to feel. His songs deny any kind of facile liberalism. The lives of Isbell’s compelling characters are messy, real and leave little room for pat answers.

His second audience is white, blue-collar Americans whose lives resemble those of his characters. With them, his project is to “separate what they believe from what they actually see happening.” In his stories, floating, as he says, between fiction and nonfiction, he tries to get very specific. “I see that you are suffering in this way,” he wants to communicate; “I see that you’re alienated in this way; what, pray tell, could be one of the reasons for that?” Simply by acknowledging their lives and asking, “how is that working out for you?” he feels he can get them to pull back and consider the futility of tribalist rage. “The argument” (how many popular musicians speak in arguments?) is: “Can you at least, for a minute, consider that you might not be right about these things?”

Weathervanes, the album, is about feeling the wind and acknowledging the shared direction we can feel it blowing. Both audiences referenced above can feel the same wind. Even if they don’t always agree on north, they can feel the wind. 

Isbell is doing his damndest to capture snapshots of it. Of us. 

The album is still sinking in for me, but if the fact that I keep putting it on is any indication, it’s already soundtracking. 

Here’s “Middle of the Morning” and a piece of the lyrics I keep singing in my head, 

Yes, I’m tired of living in the moment and sleeping through the dream

I step outside in the middle of the morning and the roses hear the scream

I know you’re scared of me, so I never get too close

I just sit here on the tailgate like a farm hand’s ghost

Watch the roses bloom, watch them wilt away and die

‘Til I notice I’ve been crying this whole time

Well, I’ve tried to open up my window and let the light come in

I step outside in the middle of the morning and in the evening again