Jason Isbell and Extraordinary Songwriting

One word.  One word in the chorus of a lesser-known song from his most recent album.  That’s all it takes to separate Jason Isbell from the likes of a thousand perfectly passable but far less gifted songwriters.

I once told my dad, on the way home from school, that we were learning about poetry and symbolism and all the double and triple meaning and nuance that could be layered into a phrase by rearranging the words.  I was skeptical. “Pretty sure most of it is chance.” He set me straight.

Now, of course, I know better.  Words are very important. The globe can turn on a single assortment of letters.  What makes Bob Dylan’s cryptic rambling legendary rather than incomprehensible is more ephemeral.  Why the streams of Blues Traveler lyrics remain little more than filler between harmonica solos and The War On Drugs wins Grammys is harder to pin down.  The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.  In the plain-spoken Americana at which Isbell excels, however, switching one word for another can change everything.

There’s a lot that makes a country songwriter effective.  Telling stories, painting pictures, capturing emotions, and relating to an audience are all immensely important.  By any of those measures, Jason Isbell is remarkable. He constructs characters from whole cloth to tell a gut-wrenching story in “Elephant,” captures an elusive sort of peaceful melancholy in “Relatively Easy,” and anchors the pensive “New South Wales” in vivid descriptions of his character’s world.  And the piss they call tequila even Waylon wouldn’t drink; I’d rather sip this listerine I packed.

But it’s his extraordinary attention to detail that makes him not a good, or even great lyricist, but one of the best songwriters alive today.  There is no better example of the power of that attention than in the song “Tupelo” from his recent album Nashville Sound.  In the chorus, Isbell writes:

When I get outta this hole I’m gon’ to Tupelo / There’s a girl down there that’ll treat me fair / Get about a week of spring and the summer is blistering / There ain’t no one from here that’ll follow me there / No, there ain’t no one from here that’ll follow me there

One of the most incredible words on the entire album punctuates the second line.  The first time I listened “Tupelo,” the word “fair” struck me in a way that was almost jarring.  The line it terminates is so unremarkable as to be almost cliche. Innumerable country songs have employed some variation of “there’s a girl down there.”  But there are nearly as many ways to end the thought that are more obvious than Isbell’s choice. “That’ll treat me good.” “Treat me right.” Fine, well, nice, whatever.  The choice of any of those words, however, would change the entire meaning of the song.

It’s possible that Isbell chose the word “fair” because the vowel sound makes it rhyme with the word “there” in the final line.  But a songwriter of Isbell’s skill certainly knows when a melody is strong enough to work without the assistance of an obvious rhyme.  It’s more likely that “fair” is the only synonym for “good” that conveys the specific meaning for which Isbell (I assume) was aiming.

A man going to Tupelo to meet a girl who will treat him “right” is an entitled man.  A man going to meet a girl who will treat him “good” is a man who thinks or hopes that’s what he’s earned, or perhaps doesn’t care if he’s earned it or not.  Instead, Isbell’s speaker wants only to be treated “fair.” He wants only what he deserves but doesn’t know quite what that is. That “fair” can also convey a lukewarm sort of good – perhaps just adequacy – might indicate the speaker’s sense of what he deserves, but the choice of the particular word with its equally common additional meaning suggests he’ll take whatever he gets.

Simply by choosing one word over another, Isbell takes a story about a man on the run from his life and changes it into something more powerful.  His speaker is no longer fleeing the consequences of his actions or trying to escape his debts, but rather is in doubt of what he’s earned even as he’s determined to accept it.  The sort of man that Isbell reveals with that one word changes the way every other line in the song lands. He’s not looking for an easy way “out of this hole,” but is resigned to the slog.  He’s not looking to escape but rather to start fresh. With one word, Isbell transforms a trope into a story of a man wrestling with the weight of his decisions and coming to terms with the reality that he may not deserve the things that he wants.

Competent songwriters can relate to their audience and tell stories.  Great songwriters can convey emotion and paint pictures with their words.  Only truly gifted songwriters can manipulate words the way that Isbell does to convey every ounce of nuance and conflict.  Not base emotions but complex and ambiguous ones. Not simple but difficult stories, freighted and powerful. Not mere images, but symbols.

Isbell knows that it only takes one word to change an entire song and he chooses accordingly.  It’s that one word – the right synonym, a flipped syntax, a rhythmic emphasis – that gives a song its power.  Only a truly extraordinary songwriter could see the power of four letters to transform a country cliche into something rich and beautiful.  Jason Isbell is a truly extraordinary songwriter.