Live Oak by Jason Isbell
Inflection Points: I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately. A point in your life when you deviated from the course you were on. The deviations could be substantial or minute, but there is you before them and there is you after them, and they are different people.
From what I know and have read about Jason Isbell, there are two inflection points to his career. The first was the decision removing him from the Drive-by Truckers after his stint with them from 2001-2007 (N.B. During which DBT made, in my opinion, their best music (N.B. with Isbell penning and singing three of the absolute best songs in DBT’s oeuvre: Decoration Day, Outfit, and Goddamn Lonely Love)). The details behind the split were candy-coated with terms like “mutual decision” and “luck going forward.” But nothing I’ve read every leads me to believe the breakup was, if not acrimonious, then not the full-on kumbaya (N.B. Especially since Isbell and former Trucker bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker’s marriage ended concurrently) they might have wanted us to believe.
I guess it’s a shame, because Isbell made DBT a better band, and consequently DBT was/is a worse because of his departure. But things happen, and Isbell began his solo career thereafter. I was at least curious to see how he’d do. But to me, his first solo albums where shackled with sounding like that “third guy from the Drive-by Truckers.” He hadn’t found a voice distinct from the one he so brilliant deployed in DBT’s three-axe attack. I had hoped he would.
But at some point in there, the second inflection point in Isbell’s career occurred. He got sober. Isbell, carrying his DBT pedigree (N.B. that of community handles of Jack Daniels from sound-check to encore) along with him in his solo career, had become a notorious drunk, Someone who ends up looking like the guy on the cover of his album once they clean up. Yeah, that kinda partier, and the whiskey-soaked tunes befit him, even if they didn’t allow for much post-DBT growth.
But he clearly needed to get sober, and good for him. He cleaned up, got married to super-talented Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle on the album and who released her own new album Down Fell the Doves this week (N.B. and who, let’s be honest, is quite a bit too good looking for him), which, from what I’ve heard so far, is charming. Southeastern would be Isbell’s coming out party as he seems to be hoping for a Righteous Path (sorry for the DBT reference). And frankly all of us (no matter how much we partake) could use a bit more sobriety, and a dark and serious album cover to announce it.
However, I came to Southeastern slowly. Because you better believe that I’m the callous asshole who assumed that getting sober/re-married would begin the process of slowly making his career boring and on the path toward irrelevance. I was wrong. Southeastern is by far his finest work. It’s filled with forlorn stories, whimsical tales, gut-punching observations (N.B. the song Elephant has surpassed Marie by Townes Van Zandt as the most poignant song I’ve ever heard. Don’t listen to it. It will haunt you, but the next time you hear a Nashville pop act release a “serious” and “emotional” song about death, know that said song isn’t even playing the same sport as Isbell is on Elephant) and–dare I say for someone who’s six months younger than me–wisdom.
In a few interviews I’ve read where Isbell discusses this track, Live Oak, he claims–maybe tongue in cheek–that it’s story about an Antebellum murder who’s tried to turn his life around, but who’s haunted by the other person who’d done the things he’d done. There’s a man who walks beside me / he is who I used to be.
But you know he’s talking about himself and that person he used to be before getting sober. Remember him? What would that person be today? Would his wife still love him? Would he be worth loving?
That made me think about inflection points. You’ve had them in your life. As one occurred, you may have even known it. You might have known that your life would forever ever different, would be bisected, after something you did, some decision you made, or wish you’d made. Or you might only realize that you’d lived through an inflection point after the fact. Either way, it’s interesting to think about the person you might be if the inflection point had shifted you in a different course than the one you ended up on. Think about that other person who might be if you hadn’t…lived through whatever you know your own inflection point to be. Can you conceive that person? Would the ones you care about the most like person? Would you like that person?
Heady stuff. At least for me (and Isbell) who seems to take particular care to note the inflection points in his life and can be consumed with how he’d be if he made this or that decision differently, or if he’d thought this way instead of that, or if he’d turned left instead or right…
You’d still like me, wouldn’t you?