Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 8: Jason Isbell & The Secret

Sometimes, all you need is a guitar, and the truth flows out.

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and why not subscribe below? It’s free and all.

Back in 1987, I got hold of a cassette of a new band of screaming jackasses. In those days, I was deep into the Gods of Rock—Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who—and I thought there was no way anything new was going to compare with the sacred texts of old.

And then I put in that cassette, and the opening notes of “Welcome to the Jungle” started playing, and I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought I knew. 

I’ve had that happen a few times, and I assume you have too—you hear a song that seems to speak to you on a level beyond speech, a song that you can hear a million times and it’ll never get old, a song that kicks down doors you didn’t even know were there. A kid played Styx’s “Renegade” when I was in second grade, and, goofy as it was (and is), it blew my elementary-school mind. My high school English teacher used to spin old Stones records, same thing. 

I thought I was past all that, thought guitar-centric music couldn’t really surprise me anymore. Entertain, impress, sure. But surprise? Nah. All the black lines were drawn and it was just a matter of coloring in the last few white spaces now, right? 

And then, in 2007, I stumbled across a song called “Dress Blues,” by a guy who’d just left the Drive-By Truckers, the iconic Southern rock band, and it was that moment of discovery all over again, years after I thought I had nothing more to learn from somebody playing guitar. 

Your wife said this all would be funny
When you came back home in a week
You'd turn twenty-two and we'd celebrate you
In a bar or a tent by the creek

Your baby would just about be here
Your very last tour would be up
But you won't be back, they're all dressing in black
Drinking sweet tea in styrofoam cups

Mamas and grandmamas love you
American boys hate to lose
You never planned on the bombs in the sand
Or sleeping in your dress blues

The words are enough of a gut-punch; the entire song is a wrenching, sharply observed story of small-town boys sent to fight pointless battles for faraway men. But the music takes it to the level of art, a melody that’s both anthemic and heartbreaking. (It’s linked below; we’ll get there.)

“Dress Blues” is the work of Jason Isbell, the Alabama-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter who’s now the standard-bearer for Three Chords and the Truth, heir to those old legends and simply one of the best American music has to offer right now. He finds the universal in the personal, and he tears off some fierce-ass guitar solos while he does. (He was also an English major at the University of Memphis while I was a graduate teaching assistant there; the poor bastard might well have had to suffer through one of my English 1101 classes.)

When you’re young, you want to hear from people who have Figured It All Out. You believe there’s some Secret out there that you haven’t learned yet, something that everyone on the other side of whatever imaginary line exists in your head already knows. And if you could just learn that Secret, why, doors would open wide and you’d be welcomed into the company of The Accomplished. 

It’s not till you get older — sometimes much, much older — that you realize there is no secret, no hidden trick. You do the work, and sometimes you get the love, sometimes you don’t. You see others getting more for doing less; you see others struggling for no payoff. There’s no path to follow, nothing but what you blaze yourself, and it might well lead you right off a cliff.  

And when you get to the point where you realize there is no map, you want to hear from people who have accepted the chaos and tried to figure out how to live in it. You can’t turn night into day, you can’t rewrite the past, and you can’t un-knot the complicated messiness of life in 2020s America. It’s just good to feel you’re not alone in not knowing exactly what the hell to do next. 

Isbell gets this, gets it in his bones. “You thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow / And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames / In 24 frames,” he sings in “24 Frames,” one of his stone-cold classics. (For the youths: one second of old-school film is made up of 24 frames of individual images.) 

He’s released seven solo albums in his career, his latest being “Reunions,” which came out Friday. Each one’s brilliant, and some of his songs hang with the best of those Old Gods. “Reunions” (hey, there’s an ironic title) is more measured than most, more inward-looking, but with a degree of empathy and openheartedness that’s pretty stunning in These Uncertain Times. It’s best heard when you can focus on the words … late at night after the party’s done, or early in the morning when no one else is awake. 

Isbell’s a storyteller who can play the hell out of a guitar, and that means he’s the icon of a certain strain of sportswriter. Pro athletes want to make albums; sportswriters want to shred a searing solo over the chords of “Simple Man.” For whatever reason, Isbell hits that perfect sweet spot, and Friday’s release day was a national holiday for the sportswriters of America, myself included.

I whipped up a Jason Isbell primer over on Spotify if you’re not already familiar with his work:

If you’re in the mood for rock that rips the roof off the joint, cue up “Cumberland Gap.” If you want to hear an entire short story in three minutes, find “Elephant” or “Chicago Promenade.” And if you want to draw on some paternal inspiration, turn “Outfit” up loud. (Apologies to all the people in the Augusta suburbs who had to suffer through a horde of sportswriters singing a terribly off-key rendition of that one on a back deck a few years back.)

So, yeah … if you’re not already on board, give Isbell a run. If you’ve liked anything rock or country in the last, oh, 50 years, you’re going to find a lot to love. I’ll wrap with a few lines from one of my favorites, “Hope The High Road.” Like all great songs, it’ll steel your spine, it’ll fill your heart, and it still fits the moment long after it was created:

I know you're tired, and you ain't sleeping well
Uninspired and likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

Peace, friends. Enjoy the weekend, enjoy the springtime. We’ll get through this. 

(None of the regular features this week; gonna just roll with the music. Check out previous issues below if this is your first time here, and if you’re not already subscribed, why, now would be a fine time to rectify that.)

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