I am not a music critic. For those who read here or know me, I usually write about civil rights and religious history, or sometimes just daily musings. Professionally, much of my work pays attention to those issues in the American South. I engage music critically in the way that it helps me explain southern or American history to my students. The release of an album this week has caught my attention. Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound has moved me to make some observations about race, religion, and southern music.
Nearly two decades ago, I came across the Drive-by Trucker, partly by accident. The release of Southern Rock Opera had met with some distain from what remains of the southern rock legend Lynyrd Skynyrd. Having grown up under the influence of the older version of the band, I wondered what caused them to be so upset with the album that appeared to celebrate their feat of creating a genre. I downloaded Decoration Day and The Dirty South and was hooked. Fusion of rock and country sound with lyrics that told stories about people I had known or experiences that were real to my family’s life. Here was a band that saw the American South the way I did: some valuable lessons to give wrapped in a boatload of crap.
When it comes to music, I am generally an admirer of artists rather than a fan. The reason that matters is that I only noticed in passing that Jason Isbell had left the band. It wasn’t until I saw a twitter post from a friend who had downloaded Something More Than Free that I paid attention to Isbell’s solo project. I remember being struck two years ago when I listened to the album that I heard a songwriter who felt more like Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty than Nashville country radio or even the homogenized radio sound of any genre-oriented station. I commented in the thread that the songs felt like a slow wend up that released with the force of a 2×4 across the face. “24 Frames” haunted me. I worry about all the things I have worked so hard for and accomplished gone in an instant. At heart, it is a love song. Twenty-fives of marriage gives us a steady footing but it doesn’t take much to break that footing. God might not be an architect and all the things built can disappear in twenty-four frames—the number of frames that pass by in one second of film. The song spoke to me sense of love and loss. I sensed something different about the singer and the songwriting but didn’t spend much time thinking about what or why. Remember, I am an admirer not a fan.
I made a slight jump to fandom a year or so ago when I saw Isbell had a Twitter account. Since most celebrities have handlers for their social media accounts, I didn’t expect much. It did not take long, however, to figure out he controls his own Twitter handle. Comments about convincing a three-year-old to eat spaghetti and an openness about the workings of the world both near and far suggested he engaged his phone (or computer) the same way I did when he wanted to say something to the world about his child or the injustices in the world. I’m still impressed at what he willingly posts there.
But this social media access put me on notice that he and his band “the 400 Unit” had been working on an album. As the spring spun out into June, Isbell started posting interviews and notices for access to the music. I could write about “If We Were Vampires” because it carried the fear in “24 Frames” to the unequaled beauty of what it would mean to lose the love of one’s life. The lyric’s chorus, sung with and without his bandmate and wife Amanda Shires, heightens what absence feels like when one of the voices disappears. I may return to that subject one day.
If a someone pre-ordered the album before June 16 release date, four songs were immediately released: “Cumberland Gap,” “White Man’s World,” “If We Were Vampires,” and “Hope the High Road.” These four reveal the song man is a short-story writer. I have also listened entire album on the NPR First Listen feed. All of the songs reveal the wordsmith uniting rich stories of love and loss with equally beautiful melodies whether in stripped down form or as the album’s title suggests the lush sounds of RCA’s Studio A of the early 1960s. The genius of this album is that it sounds nothing like the Nashville-produced radio format. He is exploring deep veins of class, race, and gender through the eyes and hearts of everyday people, some of whom I know.
“White Man’s World” holds no punches. The lyric is straightforward and its emphasis on racial and gender constructs confront the listener in a way that does not shy away from the power of whiteness in American life. The daddy of a daughter is the narrator here and he appears angry as hell. Isbell has admitted the song arose in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the result in particular. “I’m a white man living in a white man’s world” the narrator belts out as he shifts to the little girl in his house and his hopes for her. “But her momma knew better” creates a dissonance in the opening stanza. Wait, her whiteness protects her, correct? Not in this world where men shout down women or talk over them in polite dismissals. His daughter’s momma has fought these battles for far too long and the narrator has to admit that privilege is always conditioned and his is greater than theirs. Isbell could shy away at this moment and talk about how his daughter will overcome this trap, but he doesn’t. The listener is forced to stay in the white man’s world and to see it as it really is.
I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through their burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton
It is a rare moment of honesty that white men need to be the ones to see their privilege and do something about it. Once it is seen, it can make a person mad. Isbell expressed the anger here. The Truckers and Isbell have never shied away from the topic of slavery or the abuse of minority groups. In some ways, that tendency to recognize how much the South is built on the shared experiences of all people was what drew me initially to the Drive-by Truckers. This time, however, Isbell goes all in, the way a father would to protect a child. We are inheritors of ill-gotten land and fortunes built on the backs of black free labor. The reaction to this claim usually is to point out how a person has not benefitted directly from these past acts. It is here that his craft as a lyricist/short story writer is most on display. In the fourth stanza, the narrator turns the accusing finger toward himself: “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes / Wishing I’d never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke / Oh, the times ain’t forgotten.” In the midst of heated discussions about Confederate monuments this spring and the race baiting that occurred last fall, the narrator points out the most insidious form of racism is the one practiced behind closed doors or during family picnics. The way we racialize our young to think about others as a problem. These are the ones we have all participated in, including the narrator.
I think what strikes me most about this song is how it attempts to convey a message that I do when I teach about racial construction in American history. There is this thing called privilege and as the song suggests white men have it abundantly. The problem with pointing this out to people is that they don’t sense their privilege, which is why it exists. They know their family’s struggles: loss of a job, passed over for promotions, others appear to get stuff for free. Hard work doesn’t mean much anymore, at least that is what we tell our children. To say someone has privilege without helping them see how only leads to more resentment. Isbell’s gift is that he has been singing about them and for them his entire life, characters they recognize as themselves. Their struggles are real and he expresses that sense of loss and heartache in haunting tones that leave the listener caught by the suffering. Coalminers’ children know those jobs are not coming back even when promised but they still love their parents and protect their interests, even when it is clear they might be choosing against those interests. We have been taught to see the struggle in racial terms. The chorus is devastating in its critique: “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war / Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for / You’re still breathing, it’s not too late / We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” We have a hard time recognizing how our fate is attached to those who are different from us.
I am drawn to the songs on this album because I hold on to hope (not wish) that things will get better. And they get better only when we confront our blinders and biases. I realize Isbell wrote “White Man’s World” in reaction to the presidential election but it feels like he has been heading in this direction for a while. Every time he broached the subject of slavery or the experience of non-whites, Isbell flirted with a full-blown critique of the American South and its need to white supremacy. On The Nashville Sound he hit the nail on the head. But that is what hope is (and where grace resides): only when we wrestle with the hard truths do we actually make changes.
The narrator thinks God may have taken a vacation so he returns where he began with his little girl. “I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it is the fire in my little girl’s eyes / Maybe it is the first in my little girl’s eyes.” But here it is not a cliche about a younger generation making change but the realization that the narrator won’t raise the child the way he had been raised. The hard truth hurts because we have to move beyond our raising even as we embrace it in the full knowledge that the movement will changes us. It is this ache in what we lose in the change that reveals the layers of Isbell’s lyrics.
I think Jason Isbell captured the America I know, but it is much bigger than Nashville.