This past Friday, my 23-year-old son Riley came home to Charlotte so that he and I could attend a Jason Isbell concert at Ovens Auditorium together.
In trying to answer that question over the last several days, I realized: Isbell is what Flannery O’Connor would sound like if she could sing. The characters in Isbell’s songs resemble those who populate O’Connor’s stories: thoroughly Southern, completely dysfunctional, and ultimately hopeful.
Isbell’s craft is turning tales of death, addiction, betrayal, and loss into deftly poignant works of art.
So in addition to being extraordinarily grateful that my 23-year-old has the maturity to appreciate music and lyric of such depth, here are my top five reflections from Friday’s show:
1. The voice. While Isbell’s voice comes through strongly on his recorded work, nothing in it prepared me for the sonic power of his live performance. His voice is clear, compelling, and emotive. Here he is singing Live Oak in an NPR radio station . . . a rendering that best approaches just how good his voice is “live.”
2. The poetry. My goodness, can he turn a phrase. Here are the opening lines of Live Oak:
There’s a man who walks beside me he is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me
And I wonder who she’s pining for on nights I’m not around
Could it be the man who did the things I’m living down
3. The violin. John Mellencamp has shown that nothing augments a rock song quite like a good violin part. Isbell’s violinist — he called it a “fiddle” in the show — is his wife, Amanda Shires. Here they are, again at an NPR station, playing Traveling Alone together:
4. The Grammy. Last month, Isbell won a Grammy in the previously-unknown-to-me category of Americana. Who did he beat for the prize? Don Henley. Oh well.
5. The first time I heard it song. Isbell’s earlier career was with a band called The Drive-By Truckers. He included a song by that band called Decoration Day early in his set. It’s sort of rock version of the Hatfields & the McCoy’s and for some strange reason, Isbell’s soaring voice in a melancholy song brought me to tears. That’s never happened before with a song I’m hearing for the first time.