I discovered Jason Isbell a couple of weeks ago while I was up late watching an episode of Austin City Limits. I tuned in just as he was beginning the song “Live Oak,” and I had pretty much the same reaction I had when I heard Kathleen Edwards for the first time: No one that young should be that sad.
To be fair, I’m pretty sure Isbell isn’t nearly as young as Kathleen Edwards was when I first heard her. He was something of a music business veteran by the time the album “Live Oak” is from came out in 2013. He played with the Drive-By Truckers for a number of years, and has been working steadily since he set out on his own in 2007. Isabel paints vivid musical portraits of people at the ends of their proverbial ropes, and while the music is kind of bleak, it’s also good. Really good. I don’t know much else about him yet, but I plan on finding out more.
Most of the songs he played on ACL were quieter, acoustic numbers, introspective and heartfelt (track down the episode and watch it;
Patty Griffin Neko Case is the performer in the second half). But his last song rocks out nicely. It isn’t any more cheerful than his other tunes; if you listen to the lyrics, you’ll find it’s just as bleak as many of the other songs. But it is raucous, and that’s kind of fun in its own right. I imagine this is what passes for partying hearty for Jason Isbell.