Jason Isbell Is Soundtracking the Modern South

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This was the summer of live music for my two little girls. It started when I took my oldest, a five-year-old, to see Dead & Company out in Arizona, where I was working on a Grateful Dead adjacent documentary with the band. When would I get this kind of access again? My daughter ran around on the stage during sound check, played freeze tag by the big tractor-trailers and ate a rose-shaped cookie on Mickey Hart’s bus. She got home and talked about the whole thing to her sister, unbeknownst to us, and they must have talked about the actual music, because it wasn’t long before little Louise, all of two, started asking when it would be her turn to fly in an airplane “though the clouds” and “go see a band” like her sister. I called up the management of Jason Isbell, who has always been far too generous with me bugging him about hookups, and a few days later Louise and I were on an airplane south to St. Augustine Amphitheater. We almost canceled the trip because of her age. She won’t remember, we said. She’s too young to deal with an airport, we said. But ultimately I just decided to risk it.

We got to the backstage entrance to the venue and checked in with the tour office. They got her set up with a sticky pass that covered up most of her tiny little dress. I got her headphones to dull the incredibly loud noise of a rock-n-roll soundcheck, which because of the empty seats always seems somehow even louder than the show itself. Louise romped through catering where keyboard player Derry deBorja helped her find a yogurt. She ate chips and rolled on the floor. We ran around through the road cases—Isbell in white-spray paint—and when the noodling and tuning started from the stage we went down to the GA pit. She wanted to race from one end to the other so we did that. Jason came out and waved to her, calling her name on the microphone, and then counted off the band. The music started and Louise, who had never seen live music before, stood transfixed. She sat down in my lap and let the sound wash over her. As the first song ended, her little feet began to tap. She got up and started twirling—a 1989 Grateful Dead crowd at Shoreline never twirled with more vigor or less inhibition—and couldn’t stop grinning. Isbell romped through “24 Frames” and “The Life You Chose” and Louise danced, and laughed, and twirled, and when it ended, we went over to the beach and ate chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream and then we ran on the sand and looked for shells to take her big sister.

The next episode of the southern food and culture television show I make with my friends, TrueSouth on the SEC Network and ESPN+, is a searing story of addiction. This is an American story of our time, and certainly the Southern story. Heroin, alcohol, oxy and meth have hollowed out already dying rural communities whose whole purpose for existing was ripped away by agricultural mechanization. I’ve buried two cousins. People often find ways to deal with the death of their cultural inheritance, whether a populist strongman, a bottle of cheap vodka or a needle. Jason Isbell’s songs are the most clear-eyed soundtrack of this decaying world that currently exists and, in my opinion, he is one of a scarce few country musicians who is actually confronting the place where we live as it is, not as it might exist in some sepia toned fantasy whose vaguely sketched boundaries are as insulting to rural Americans as they are false. He graciously let us use his songs to score this latest episode.

In many ways Jason’s risky honesty is a north star for our show. I say risky because he has intentionally limited his own audience by putting the art of his work above the commerce of it. He puts his progressive politics on display, at the cost of potential customers who would definitely see themselves and their families in his lyrics. I know how hard that is to do because I sometimes don’t have the courage to make the same stand myself. My admiration for Jason could not be higher. I don’t know whether he’s older or younger than I, and it feels like cheating right now to look it up, but I would like my artistic life to be more like his when I grow up.

The market research I get about TrueSouth gives me an insight into the modern south that I honestly think few other people have. People are hungry for unity. For common ground. Our audience, to the surprise of executives, cuts across geography, race, class, political persuasion, gender and reveals a divided group of people hungry to belong to a unified tribe. I gave a talk a few years ago at a symposium that used food to address the state of the modern south and I offered up the idea that the only unifying feature in the south these days were our prejudices. That most working Southern people didn’t really eat biscuits before work. They eat tacos. That all the pieces of poor rural life that once defined the working poor south now remain merely as middle-class affectations and portals to connect with the mythical history, from which so much modern identity flows. I stand by that, mostly, but with a caveat. The last few seasons of our show – we are wrapping up our sixth season – have helped me see a southern identity that defies stereotype. We have incredibly liberal fans. Hardcore MAGA fans. Trans fans. Southern Baptist fans. COGIC fans. Black fans. White fans. Fans whose families stretch back to the ten ships that followed the Mayflower and fans who are making a new life in the land of dreams without papers. Fans who love the Grateful Dead, and fans who love Toby Keith, fans who love Jesmyn Ward and fans who love John Grisham, fans who fly Confederate flags and fans who burn them. Fans at Sikh truck stops and Cuban-American sandwich joints. I know this because we hear from them. The thing these people have in common is a deep love for the food and music of this place we all call home.

The author's daughter Louise, backstage at Jason Isbell's August show in St. Augustine, Florida.
The author's daughter Louise, backstage at Jason Isbell's August show in St. Augustine, Florida.
Courtesy of Wright Thompson

Our show, hosted by John T. Edge and directed by Tim Horgan, works hard at using local music. In Athens, Georgia, we played R.E.M., Love Tractor, Pylon and the fabulously named Nihilist Cheerleader. In Beaumont, Texas, where we went to eat links and dance the Step Out, we played Paul Cauthen, whose voice reminds me of daylight peaking in the big black curtains hanging over the door at Ms. Mae’s in New Orleans. In Jackson, Mississippi, we organized a face-eating collaboration between blues legend Bobby Rush and the mighty, mighty Jackson State marching band. The Sonic Boom of the South. Bobby and I sat on a porch and he told stories about moving to Chicago as a young man and getting invited to Muddy Waters’s birthday party—by Muddy Waters.

These bands, even the old ones, are a foundation for a new, better place. Tiny postage stamps of common ground upon which to dance. Big Jack “The Oil Man” Johnson bringing down that Clarksdale thunder. Lynn Drury’s City Life, still the Katrina song that moves me the most. Eight Ball and MJG, who showed us around Memphis and then held court at the Pressure World car wash. We toasted a friend of theirs with Jack Daniel’s. Cause Orange Mound, Tennessee: Pop’s Hot Tamales and Mr. Big. The Blind Boys of Alabama. Hurricane Chris and Lee Bains. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. Kingfish. Valerie June. S.G. Goodman. K.C. Jones and Feufollet in a bunker of a bar on the edge of a rice field in boudin country. I have heard few more beautiful sounds in my life than Feufollet’s genre-bending Cajun soul funk. We grooved to the sandy loam blues of Cedric Burnside. And, of course, Jason Isbell.

His music is not local to Dublin, Georgia—where this particular episode of the show is set—but his stories of the rural south feel written for the difficult story we found there. In Dublin we visited Miller’s Soul Food for the meat-and-three of your grandmother’s dreams. We visited the Minute Grill, a perfect little small-town hot dog and burger joint whose fry-cooks and waitresses are all patients at a local rehab facility who takes in broken women and sends them whole into the world in peace to try and start a new kind of life. That kind of spiritual rebirth, which is also what the south needs, lives in the meat-and-threes and smokehouses around the countryside, and in the best of the music written from, for, about these broken places, trying with each note and line to make them whole again, to make the artist whole, and everyone within earshot of his or her voice. When you read the papers, or the polls, that hope feels silly and impossible. But when you sit down at a welcome table with a plate of speckled butter beans and a tinny speaker playing Sam Cooke or Nate Dogg, Muddy Waters or Rick Ross —all four from my hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, by the way—that hope feels like the only path that exists back into the light.

I believe in the better angels of recovery, which is the most constant theme in Jason Isbell’s music about the modern south.

So you might be wondering now why I started with my little girl? Well, that’s because of what happened when we got home from St. Augustine. Of course I loved that I’d given both girls good answers to the First Concert question—Dead & Co. and Isbell—which far exceeded my own first show, Skid Row Slave to the Grind tour, Cook Convention Center, Memphis, Tennessee, and I sort of thought that would be the only lasting thing that came from these two trips to Arizona and Florida. Except Louise seemed changed by the music, in a way that aligned with how I’ve been feeling that southern music and food offered a foundation. How the music, especially, in its protest, mourning, and longing – for freedom, for love, for a Cadillac – has always been an incubator and protector of values. Anyway, Louise, who was 2, started asking if she could watch “a band” on my phone or computer.

“I want to see a band!” she said the first time.


She didn’t pause.

“Jason Isbell,” she said.

So I pulled up “24 Frames” from a live show. She watched that, rapt, asking for the names of everyone in the band. I played “The Life You Chose” next, in the order she’d seen them. Going forward, whenever she’d ask for “a band” I’d always start with “24 Frames.” Then, on her own, She always asks for “Life You Chose,” which she remembered. Sometimes she watches intently. Sometimes she taps along. I got her a toy guitar and she pretended to be Jason, strumming and singing made up words, finishing every song with a bow. Sometimes she dances. She doesn’t get bored. The music we listen to shapes us in profound ways. It’s transformative in every life. Yesterday the girls and I went out to the lake with friends and a big mess of kids. They ran and played games. My five-year-old wanted to go look for shells. But Louise asked for “a band” and for the next little while, she carried my phone with her and nodded her little head in time to the music.

Wright Thompson is the executive producer of TrueSouth and the author of The Cost of These Dreams and Pappyland. He wrote and voiced the trailer for Jason Isbell’s latest album, Weathervanes.

Originally Appeared on GQ