We could never go back and be strangers All our secrets are mixed and distilled But you’ve taught me to temper my anger And you’ve learned what it’s like to be still
Jason Isbell sings these lines in a song called “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” which is also the title of a new documentary by Sam Jones that follows the recording and release of Reunions–the chart-topping record put out by Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, in early 2020.
“Jason Isbell is one of those songwriters that makes you feel like you know him and he knows you,” Jones, the director, says from the jump. “This collection of songs are some of the most personal he’s ever written so I wanted to discover where the life and the art connect.”
Twenty-two minutes into the documentary we’re treated to a scene of Isbell belting out a heartbreaking ballad called “Dreamsicle” that delves into his chaotic childhood rooted in small-town Alabama and his parents’ divorce when he was an adolescent.
“There was a pretty big religious undertone to everything down there,” Isbell says, and this preacher’s kid from Arkansas can relate. Creative Writing classes regularly teach students about three kinds of stories: Romance, Comedy, and Tragedy, but Isbell says there’s essentially one kind of story, “Will you listen to what my life is like and let’s compare?”
After Isbell finishes singing, he joins his wife, Amanda Shires, under the soundboard and they share a quiet moment holding hands as the vocals replay and you understand just how deep this song cuts for everyone in the room. It was at this point in the documentary that I began wishing for a happy ending to Jason’s (and perhaps my own) story.
I’ve been listening to Isbell since 2017, when songs like “Cumberland Gap” and “Anxiety” became a regular part of my husband’s kitchen rituals. Whether he’s cleaning up after dinner or preparing to try out a new recipe, John usually has loud music blaring from the Google speaker as he putters around the kitchen, and after twenty-five years, I can tell what kind of mood he’s in based on the playlist.
That Spring was a particularly tough one as we prepared for our oldest to fly the coop. Lyrics like, “Even with my lover sleeping close to me / I’m wide awake and I’m in pain” and “Mama said ‘God won’t give you too much to bear’ / Might be true in Arkansas but I’m a long long way from there” provided some companionship in that season for our grief, anger, and fear.
As we worried endlessly over the future, life felt a lot like this chorus from “24 Frames”:
You thought God was an architect, now you know He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow And everything you built that’s all for show, goes up in flames In 24 frames
Isbell’s songs from the last few albums cover everything from his own struggles with addiction to his longings to change Southern culture. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the level of intimacy this film sheds on Isbell’s early life—particularly the storms his marriage has weathered over the last ten years. These storms have produced songs like “Cover Me Up” and “It Gets Easier,” both powerful anthems, that also carry the potential to trigger former addicts as well as victims of domestic violence.
The documentary does not end with the entire Isbell family sitting in church on Sunday morning–the neat and tidy ending my crooked heart longs for, but it does show an authentic story of redemption. And if Christianity has taught me anything, it’s that redemption is messy and difficult, rather than clean and easy. Which reminds me of the main character in the song “River.” He’s a man who’s done terrible, awful things, but the melody feels like a lullaby, and Isbell ends the song with these words:
The river is my savior She’s running to the sea And to reach her destination Is to simply cease to be And running ’til you’re nothing Sounds a lot like being free So I’ll lay myself inside her And I’ll let her carry me
The initial savior in Isbell’s life is Shires, as she helped him get on the road to recovery; by the end of the film, it’s clear that Isbell needs more. Shire’s sacrifices are not capable of providing a lasting solution for all his sins. As Isbell attests when speaking about his mother’s failed attempts to change his father’s behavior in the early nineties, “For a long time I thought that was possible,” he says. “And… it’s not, turns out.”
Isbell’s story, as it turns out, is just as complicated as either of his parents, but this movie sparks hope in my heart as it bears witness to a life that’s still in process, just like mine.