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The Music of Jason Isbell and the Myth of the Simple Story

No one has a simple story.

For reasons I imagine Jason Isbell never intended, when I listen to his music I sometimes find my mind drifting to friends and ministry colleagues who have seemingly lost everything due to choices they’ve made or afflictions that have come to them.  As I listen, I remember that what’s happened to them could just as easily happen to me.

When a public figure falls, we, who know nothing of the actual details or circumstances, can be so quick to think we see the situation with panoramic clarity when, in truth, we only see a sliver of the full story—just a speck. It takes everything in us not to fill in the details, and even more to hold back that subtle sense of glee when we do.

A life in ruin is a sacred place—something to be respected, not ridiculed. Russ Ramsey

Jesus warns us against making much of the speck we see in a brother’s eye. A life in ruin is a sacred place—something to be respected, not ridiculed. The more we learn about someone’s particular catastrophe, the more we should be moved to compassion and sobriety of heart. The particular details bring the thing down from the clouds to the ground on which we ourselves stand—and only then does it touch us.

It is a holy moment when God topples our best-laid plans—our Babels.

C. S. Lewis and Pipe Bombs

In his raw and beautiful work, A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis writes, “If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. . . . If my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down, the better. And only suffering could do it.”

Almost as if he’s continuing Lewis’s thought, Jason Isbell, in his 2016 Grammy-winning song “24 Frames,” wrote these words about his addictions and the marriage he lost as a result.

This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing And this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she Gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing This is how you make yourself call your mother And this is how you make yourself closer to your brother And remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing 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

In that lyric, “this” refers to what you have to do after your world gets leveled. When asked about comparing God to a pipe bomb, Isbell said, “I felt like that was the most insightful line in the song. It’s about assuming that you have control over the things that go on in your life—and you know, you really don’t.”

What Isbell Has to Tell Us

Isbell’s last two albums, Southeastern (2013) and Something More Than Free (2015), are often referred to as his “sober” records, since they were made after he got clean. His journey through addiction to sobriety is well documented, so I won’t rehearse it here except to note we sell Isbell way short if we think this is the only story he has to tell.

As with Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway, Isbell brings a certain darkness to his work that helps us see the light. Russ Ramsey

Isbell’s suffering has produced an awareness with the full range of complexities common to the human experience—insight he shares with both humility and humor. As with Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway, Isbell brings a certain darkness to his work that helps us see the light—a sinking sorrow that makes true joy buoyant. Song after song, Isbell offers details to help us see the layers and textures of complicated things we might otherwise regard as simple.

Though his work is certainly autobiographical (whose isn’t?), he is neither the hero nor the villain of his songs. His records are full of stories—parables with characters and richly orienting details like you find in Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad. His characters are like us, and like the people we all know. Some are refined, some are rough. Some use salty language while others pray for decency. Some are young and invincible and others are dying of cancer. Some drink too much, take drugs, and pretend it won’t catch up to them. As a result, some get beat up and some overdose. And the people who loved them weep.

No One Has a Simple Story

This is the world I know as a pastor. I’ve been down in the trenches with people whose lives were in the process of falling apart. I’ve taken calls where hollow, grieving voices on the other end of the line tell me they lost a loved one to drugs, or that they have cancer, or that they just lost their job, or their marriage.

The people who waltz in and out of Isbell’s songs are beautiful and grotesque at the same time. But Isbell uses them do the heavy lifting of the truth-telling. They sow and they reap. They laugh and they grieve. They try to be carefree and self-indulgent but end up reflective and repentant. They flirt with the shadows and end up lost. They’re sought by love and found.

But none of it is simple—and that, I find helpful. We don’t help each other when we ignore the pain or dismiss the grit and gurgle of affliction, addiction, self-centeredness, and secret destructive appetites. Isbell has a gift for unfolding these sorts of stories with accessibility and detail that make us want to lean in to hurting people with compassion and humility.

And that, I find honest, because no one has a simple story.

(This article was previously published at The Gospel Coalition.)


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