If C&W had a soul Jason Isbell would be the biggest thing in Nashville.
Keith Urban is a judge on American Idol. Blake Shelton is on The Voice. Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and the rest of these prancing pinup models are the stars of the moment.
Meanwhile, down in Alabama, Jason Isbell has produced as good a set of back-to-back records as anybody in country (C&W, alt.Country, Thunder Country, you name your sub-genre) history – maybe as great as any consecutive albums in any popular music genre – and Nashville treats him like something it scraped off its diamond-spangled distressed ostrich boots.
If you want, go listen to Here We Rest and Southeastern before continuing. They’re both on Spotify, although after you listen you might want to head over to iTunes or eMusic or Amazon to actually buy them both. Go on – I’ll be here when you get back.
Listening to Southeastern this morning set me off again. And it’s more than just a matter of style. Yes, Nashville done gone Hollywood. Thank the gods Hank is dead. He wouldn’t recognize NashVega$ and if he showed up they’d chase him out of town like you’d shoo a hog out of the living room when the preacher stops by. We can probably bitch all day about what this means for the genre’s authenticity. But…the thing is, I’m not worried about the style. I don’t care about the facade. I care about the substance.
C&W used to be music of the people. The downtrodden. The poor, the overwrought, the hard-working. Real Americans. Real Americana. George Jones. Tammy Wynette. Loretta Lynn. Hank Williams. Johnny Cash and June Carter. Roy Acuff. Bill Monroe. Patsy Cline. Kitty Wells. Not a lot of uptown in that crowd. They’d have been afraid to walk a red carpet for fear they might mess it up. And their music seemed familiar because it was familiar. These artists did not come from privilege. Since they knew their audience and cared about them, they could speak to them instead of pandering to them.
C&W was the music of a marginalized class. It was, in so many ways, political, serving as a record of the plight of those who had no voice in the halls of power and no money with which to purchase the favor of those charged with serving their best interests. Even when it was intimately personal it was political, because it spoke from circumstances that simply did not attend the lives of the world’s haves.
The current crop of Country luminaries sings about the same-old same-old themes, of course, but it’s all a bloodless put-up job. Can you imagine Taylor Swift covering “Stand By Your Man”? I’m giggling just thinking about it. Nope, nowadays, Country & Western is Establishment Music®. It’s about glamor and status and wealth. It has become the very thing it once stood against.
Meanwhile, there are artists who carry on in the tradition of the genre’s legends, and Jason Isbell has to be foremost among them. Consider the last couple verses of his “TVA,” which he wrote in 2009 when he was still with Drive-By Truckers. (Click to listen.)
My granddaddy told me when he was just seven or so
His daddy lost work and they didn’t have a road to hoe
Not too much to eat for seven boys and three girls
All lived in a tent, a bunch of sharecroppers versus the world
So his mama sat down and wrote a letter to FDR
And a couple days later, a couple county men came in a car
Rolled out in the field, told his daddy to put down the plow
He helped build the dam, gave power to most of the South
So I thank God for the TVA
Thank God for the TVA
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay
Thank God for the TVA
You can’t help thinking that this would have played nicely in the Grand Ol’ Opry in the late ’30s. Back here in 2014, though, this kind of bald-faced socialism has little place in Nashville. Damned shame, too. I hate to politicize, but contemporary C&W provides the soundtrack for folks who want to vote against their own best interests (I bet Taylor Swift sells pretty well in the Walmarts up West Bygod way – you know, the place where right now everybody can run a bathtub full of poisoned water). How many of the pretty people at your average Lady Antebellum show descend from grandparents and great-parents who’d have been well and truly fucked if not for old-style, hard-boiled Liberalism? How many of them realize it? How many of them would ever think to ask the question?
Jason Isbell is one of the most talented recording artists working in America today. In addition to all that talent, he has brains, he has a conscience and he has more soul than all the poncey popmongers in Nashville put together. I hate that false consciousness has become the national pastime, and I especially hate it that my people – the working class, the poor, especially in the South – have so completely lost touch with the music that helped sustain their forebears through hard times.
I feel like I’m ranting. I don’t have a grand epiphany here. Nothing new to say, nothing you don’t already know. Just venting for the choir, I guess.
Let me make it up to you. Jason and his band played Austin City Limits the other night (see if you can catch a replay). Here’s the lead track from Southeastern.
Here’s “Alabama Pines” from Here We Rest.
One more – “Live Oak,” with his wife, Amanda Shires. Beautiful, gut-wrenching stuff.
Now I have to go check and see when Isbell is playing Seattle next….