"It is veneer, rouge, aestheticism, art museums, new theaters, etc. that make America impotent. The good things are football, kindness, and jazz bands."
Best live show I saw this year, and I saw Bob Dylan this year. And I saw The Avett Brothers. And Isbell only played for a half-hour (it was at a festival where he was added late). And it was still the best show I saw this year.
There are people who have problems with country music in general, and these people are sadly irredeemable. Country music, in and of itself, is a great thing. It’s a truly American form of music and a distinctly American way of storytelling. It serves as the soundtrack for basically the whole SEC and, yes, a fair amount of the Slow States.
There are other people who have problems with modern country music, and their criticisms are valid. For the most part, modern country is classic rock with a twang and a funny hat, highly disposable both musically and lyrically. A guy made millions of dollars on a song that had the word “Badonkadonk” in the title, for chrissake. And as bad as that sort of half-assery is for the genre, the jingoistic strain of Toby Keith country is even worse, trading in the wholesome patriotism of 70’s-era Johnny Cash for something infinitely dumber. The common link between general modern country buffoonery and the more xenophobic section of the crowd is the mass market: This music is engineered to appeal to as broad, and as shallow, a base as possible, and it does so rather effectively. So long as the guitars sound like Journey and the singer drawls about brews and buds and beaches (oh yeah, there’s also the dumbest segment of all: Jimmy Buffett country), everything is chill.
It hasn’t always been this way; in fact, country music was built out of bootlegging and running from the law. The legends of the medium — at least until Garth Brooks made them commercially irrelevant — were almost uniformly standing in steadfast support of the downtrodden, the incarcerated, the beaten. Johnny Cash didn’t wear black because he wanted to look cool in a Harley Davidson ad. Cash wore black for those who had been discarded by society. He did concerts in prisons across America, where today’s stars would rather cameo on American Idol.
And so we come to Here We Rest, the most recent effort from former Drive By Truckers frontman Jason Isbell and his new band. Sonically, it’s solid, though not a significant departure from his previous solo work or the hardscrabble country western of DBT. But if there was one thing that Isbell brought to his former group that may be ever so slightly missing from their newest incarnation, it’s a true sense of the history of country music, and here he shows it off in spades. Isbell realizes that country music, in its proper form, is as much about tone as it is about the words of the story itself, and the narrator cannot and should not be the winner.
It starts with the first track, “Alabama Pines,” where the beaten-down inhabitant of a one-room apartment with no A/C (and what a turn of phrase it is that gets us there, “The A/C hasn’t worked in twenty years/probably never made a single person cold/I can’t say the same for me/I’ve done it many times”) laments the slow decay of the society around him, finally resigning himself to the fact that “no one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about”. This isn’t the story of an angry redneck putting a boot in someone’s ass. It’s the story of the isolated man accepting that the boot’s been kicking him for years.
The album ends with one of the best post-war songs of the War on Terror, as the central character in “Tour of Duty” returns from the occupation, not with knee-jerk patriotism and yellow ribbons, but with PTSD and confusion and fear and the completely rational desire to see his girl and eat oysters by the pail and try to forget “all that work we did in vein”. Again, it’s not the obvious story of beers and buds and Lee Greenwood. It’s the story that an actual country artist like Merle or Hank would want to tell.
In between, there bastard children meeting their dads (“Stopping By”), long-lost and long-ignored loves (“We’ve Met”) and the most gorgeous song ever written about a relationship imploding under the weight of stubbornness and narcotics (“Codeine”). The brilliance of this album is its subtlety (and its charm fades when that subtlety gets lost in some of the second half); in the age where Carrie Underwood is perpetually bludgeoning us with shrieks and curls, that’s to be commended.