Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell - Southeastern

I needed to hear something new.

That’s how I felt in the summer of 2013, when I was just a few months out of college and already felt like I’d fucked up my whole life.

My first post-graduation “job” had been an unmitigated disaster, and my lack of employment (not to mention my dwindling bank account) had me feeling like a crash-and-burn failure. I’d felt so confident coming out of school, so sure I was bound for success. But the economy was still in tatters from the Great Recession, and jobs were hard to find – especially jobs for a green wannabe professional writer whose resume consisted solely of student jobs and internships. Days of sending out job applications and cover letters yielded no payoff, and I could sense that my girlfriend – a year ahead of me in school and already securely and gainfully employed – was getting worried about my prospects.

It was a low time in my life, made lower by the fact that the one thing I’d usually turn to during times of crisis – music – didn’t seem to be working like it used to work. Every song or album just reminded me of better times, times when I’d felt more hopeful, more happy, more alive. Every familiar artist that had once felt like an old friend now felt like someone who was mocking my ineptitude at finding a way to get on with my life.

So, I needed to hear something new. I needed to discover artists who would be new companions for this particular chapter of my life, artists whose music would help inspire me for a new fight without reminding me so much of where I’d been. I was a “grown up” now – whatever that means – and my new movie needed a different soundtrack from the old ones. Who would be the artist to break down the wall and make me feel something again, other than a bitter-tasting pill of nostalgia?

Enter Jason Isbell.

The funny thing is that, by 2013, Isbell was far from a “new artist.” The Alabama-born songwriter and guitarist had joined the Americana shitkickers in Drive-By Truckers in 2001, at the ripe young age of 22 (incidentally, the same age I was in 2013), and he’d gone on to make four records with them before bowing out (read: getting fired) in April of 2007. Shortly thereafter, Isbell dropped his first solo LP – that same year’s Sirens of the Ditch – and then followed it up with new albums in 2009 (the self-titled Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) and 2011 (the almost-classic Here We Rest). By the time 2013 rolled around, Isbell was a seasoned veteran with a decade and a half in the industry under his belt and the chops to make a go at taking his career to the next level.

Southeastern did just that. Released 10 years ago this week, Isbell’s fourth album proved to be “the one” – the record that took him from beloved troubadour who mostly flew under the radar to genuine household name. Back in February, I flew from Michigan to Austin, Texas for a bachelor party and took a quick look through the in-flight movie offerings. Among the modest selection was a concert film Isbell had recorded a few years ago at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium. Without Southeastern, I doubt Isbell would’ve ever had the industry clout to end up in the “airplane movie” rotation.

There are a lot of reasons that Southeastern succeeded where previous Isbell albums had maybe missed the mark. For one thing, it was his first team-up with producer Dave Cobb, who would go on to become arguably the most in-demand collaborator in Nashville over the course of the 2010s. Cobb helped Isbell tap into an intimate, confessional sound that prized live in-the-room feel over expensive studio tricks, and that valued raw emotional candor over aesthetic perfection. The result is an album that feels legitimately timeless. There’s nothing to date this record to a particular moment, because the entire thing sounds like Isbell and his band might just be playing the songs in the next room, right on the other side of your speakers.

Southeastern was also simply the right record at the right time. 2013, in retrospect, is perhaps the most pivotal year in modern country music history. The same summer that Isbell unleashed his fourth album on the world, Florida Georgia Line were in the midst of a remarkable, record-breaking 24-week run at the top of Billboard Hot Country Songs chart with their hit “Cruise.” The so-called “bro country” movement had begun, and with it, the need for some solid counterprogramming. Isbell – along with fellow 2013 breakthrough star Kacey Musgraves and a handful of other young left-of-the-dial songwriters – was ideal for the job.

Most of all, though, Southeastern worked because Isbell was writing and singing and living like a man with a new lease on life. It’s no secret that a drinking problem had trailed Isbell since his early days in the music industry. It became enough of a problem in Drive-By Truckers that he was ultimately shown the door, and you don’t have to look far to find reports and anecdotes about early solo shows where Isbell would get so drunk that he’d be slurring his words and singing off key. But Isbell got sober in between Here We Rest and Southeastern, and you can hear it in the songs.

When I wrote about this album for my “best of the 2010s” list, I wrote that hearing Southeastern “is like seeing Superman away from kryptonite for the first time.” Isbell’s first three solo LPs all had moments of brilliance, but they’d also all had aspects that felt undercooked – songs that seemed more like rough sketches than finished statements, and a vocal drawl that hadn’t yet matured and settled into the big, smokey, emotive tenor that would become Isbell’s calling card. From the first 30 seconds of Southeastern, though, you could hear that Isbell was in a different place. “I was so sure/What I needed was more/Tried to shoot out the sun,” Isbell sings on “Cover Me Up,” the song that would become his mission statement and his signature. Later in the song, it’s “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff/Forever this time,” a lyric that never fails to elicit a massive cheer when Isbell plays the song live. Those sentiments would be powerful in any autobiographical piece of writing, but they feel important in “Cover Me Up” – a song so melodically grand and sung with so much feeling that it’s hard not to get chills when you hear Isbell sing it. He wrote the song for his wife (and bandmate) Amanda Shires, the person he credits with saving him from the darkness. Often, at shows, he sings it right to her. It is, for my money, the greatest love song ever written.

“Cover Me Up” has become a bona-fide American songbook classic in the 10 years since Isbell wrote it. It’s not uncommon to hear someone attempt it on The Voice or during a gig at a local bar. Morgan Wallen, currently the biggest superstar in country music, also covered it on his last album, 2021’s Dangerous. That cover is an atrocity, and not just because Wallen is a mediocre singer or even because he got caught on camera using the N-word and then relied on the uber-conservative part of the country music fanbase to get him out of trouble. The biggest problem with Wallen’s version isn’t even that at least 70 percent of the songs he sings have to do with drinking, which feels tone-deaf when presented alongside a song about the hard road to sobriety and all the second chances it might offer. No, Wallen’s “Cover Me Up” – and every other version ever sung by anyone else – pales in comparison to Isbell’s simply because they don’t mean it like he does. Some songs can’t thrive as covers because they are so tied to the artist’s story and personal experience, and hearing Isbell sing “Cover Me Up” like what it is – the song that saved his life – will and should ruin every other past, present, or future incarnation of the song.

That’s what makes Southeastern so great. It’s not just that the songs are spectacularly written little masterpieces, though they are. Even the less heralded tracks are packed with craft: Over the years, I’ve particularly fallen in love with “New South Wales,” a gorgeously understated ditty about touring and sobriety; and with “Yvette,” about a teenage boy who notices that his female classmate is getting sexually abused by her father and decides to take matters into his own hands to rescue her. But beyond the stunning songcraft, what makes Southeastern arguably the greatest album of the past 10 years is that Isbell sings every word like his whole soul depends on it. Listen to him drowning in loneliness and losing hope on “Traveling Alone,” a song so aching with emptiness and the desire for human connection that it will shake you to your core. Listen to him mourning a friend lost to cancer on “Elephant,” an elegy that weaves all the stages of grief into one of the most emotionally complex songs ever put to tape. Listen to him having an epiphany on “Songs That She Sang in the Shower,” about all the things he’s going to have to lose in this life if he can’t find a way past his vices.

“You should know, compared to people on a global scale/Our kind has had it relatively easy.” That’s a line from “Relatively Easy,” the very last song on Southeastern, and I think it might just have saved my life – or at least my sanity. It slapped me in the face and shook me awake, and showed me that I was being 1) too hard on myself; and 2) too focused on the things that weren’t going my way. I may not have had a career mapped out yet, but I was living with the girl I loved, and we were finally making a life together after years of long drives and phone calls – even if it was modest and small and governed by the limitations you have on you when you’re a broke post-college twentysomething. In so many ways, I was lucky.

It took me a long time to find my way toward a career that I found fulfilling and that made me proud of how I spent my work days. But Southeastern, in a lot of ways, reframed my perspective and reminded me to focus on the good things instead of the bad ones. It’s no surprise, I guess, that it also proved to be the album that most shaped the next 10 years of my listening, sending me down a rabbit hole of country and Americana artists, teaching me to love songwriting in brand new ways, and even informing the music that, a few years later, I’d start making myself.

In 2013, Jason Isbell was a “clean slate” artist for me – someone whose music I reached for in part because I needed to hear something that was divorced from the life I’d lived up until that point. So I guess it’s poetic that Isbell eventually became one of my favorite artists ever – someone whose music I can reach for no matter the occasion and know it’s going to resonate. In fact, these days, there’s maybe no songwriter alive who can level me quite like Isbell can, whether he’s singing about addiction, or love, or mortality, or his daughter. Every album he makes is a masterpiece, and every song he writes is this little four-minute world of lived-in emotion and nuanced detail. But for me, his foremost work will always be Southeastern, if only for how it helped me get over the hump of my post-grad blues, and live.