Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
No one elected Jason Isbell explainer-in-chief of the white man’s world, yet here he rests as the South’s preeminent singer-songwriter, extolling the virtues of his heritage, while never excusing the hate on his latest album The Nashville Sound. In the age of Trump and the incessant need of the mainstream media to unlock the secrets of the white, rural voter, Isbell tells their story, where pundits merely analyze.
Much like dropping one’s gift at the altar in order to reconcile with another member of the community, Isbell reaches out to those hurting, even those he’s given voice to, by offering something better than bitterness.Jason Isbell finds the pulse of Southern life, writing like a world-weary Cormac McCarthy character who sings in order to make sense of what he’s chosen and had dictated to him and his people. Isbell elucidates familiar Southern tropes: family, football, military service, back porches—but making a country or folk song is about more than jotting lyrics gleaned from flipping through the pages of idyllic scenes from Garden & Gun while sipping sweet tea. Isbell maintains an ethic of truth-telling that does not allow for either putting on airs or acting like “your family’s a joke” as he sings on “Outfit” (2003). Isbell is what Michael Walzer refers to as a “connected critic,” one who is neither intellectually nor emotionally detached from the community. He has a stake in the place he knows to be home.
Isbell shines by highlighting the tedium that makes up the daily lives of ordinary folks. For it is within the mundane that the dreams of Isbell’s characters calcify due to the oft-unnoticed effects of their whiteness. The unacknowledged force of whiteness—their social imagination—shapes the aspirations and interactions of so many figures in Isbell’s songs. On “White Man’s World” (2017) Isbell says the “creature comforts” of whiteness have been enjoyed as the spoils of trampling on the “red man’s bones” and by avoiding “someone else’s war,” as he calls out everything from casual joking to an indifference to systemic racism.
This has been a persistent soapbox for Isbell on past albums Here We Rest (2011), Southeastern (2013), and Something More Than Free (2015), not a new platform for the Trump era. In Southeastern’s “Flying over Water” Isbell notes that the white man’s world, despite its supposed order, is really just a cycle of oppression and bloodletting:
From the sky we look so organized and brave
Walls that make up barricades and graves
Daddy’s little empire built by hands and built by slaves
From the sky we look so organized and brave
The long, high walls that supposedly hold evil at bay are bought by blood and offer only temporary protection. “Different Days” from the same album shows an individual planning to escape her life, but Isbell cautions that she might simply be running away to “Just another drunk daddy with a white man’s point of view.” The white man’s world is a weaponized ethos, diffused into the atmosphere. You can escape it insofar as you can stop breathing.
There is a racial order to the white man’s world established by God, reasoned by science, codified by law. So the jarring disruption to this world is not just a demolition of how things used to be but a rending of the cosmic fabric that held all things together, and perhaps more importantly, kept everyone in their proper place. The implications for their faith are clear: If the promised divine order cannot be kept, then their God is no god.
For Isbell “vanishing” becomes a description of the angst many feel; it’s not just about death, but to the death before death. The slow death of being resigned, uninspired, and forced into irrelevance; it is a slow slide where one does not even notice the shifting ground. Vanishing applies to the lost jobs, the desire to escape one’s hometown, and the harsh realization that one is unnoticed or uncared for.
Whites have enjoyed the dual privilege of floating about as selectively invisible, while also pretending as if no one else inhabited their space. bell hooks says the power of “whiteness” is how it conjures the belief among whites that they were invisible to blacks, allowed to move about society, unnoticed by others. In other words, the privilege of whiteness “accorded them the right to control the black gaze,” and in turn, blacks assumed a kind of invisibility, which made them “less threatening servants.” Nancy Isenberg argues that poor whites have felt a similar invisibility among the more refined southern stock, who considered to them to be a “waste people.”
For many of Isbell’s characters forces have colluded to snatch away the American Dream: an unplanned pregnancy, an injury at work by a faulty tool, and of course, bad choices. Isbell details on “Alabama Pines” (2011) the malaise that comes from being stuck in one place and how familiarity breeds a mutual contempt:
I’ve been stuck here in this town,
If you could call it that, a year or two
I never do what I’m supposed to do
I don’t even need a name anymore
When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away
Vanishing also marks “24 Frames” (2015), a song about nearly losing a lover due to poor choices:
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
“Children of Children” (2015), one of Isbell’s most heartbreaking songs, details how even motherhood means the end of an old life with the devastating refrain, “All the years I took from her/Just by being born.”
When Isbell asks, “Are you living the life you chose? Or are you living the life that chose you?” the question lands forcefully upon all listeners (“The Life You Chose,” 2015). Choices made and habits formed are often the result of limited options and circumstances, particularly for those who need to “live by the mantras” just to get them out of bed (“Songs That She Sang in the Shower,” 2013).
Isbell, a recovering addict himself, has a remarkable skill of capturing the seriousness of addiction without turning into a preachy know-it-all, but by his accounts of his past he could deliver one hell of a sermon. Isbell’s rollicking live crowd-pleasers “Codeine” (2011) and “Super 8” (2013)—with the pleading chorus “don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel” —never let you forget you’re listening to the unglamorous results of addiction. There is a reason, however, for turning to substance. On “Cumberland Gap” (2017) the depressed drinker acknowledges that his habit “wasn’t my daddy’s way.” The same mining job his father had just will not cut it for the son, because the town is dying, and maybe he realizes he’s dying with it, so why not expedite the process?
Even still, Isbell’s characters exhibit immense gratitude for steady work. The mantras, when combined with the routines, form a new liturgy that are crucial to surviving the grind. His clearest lyrics on work come from the title-track of Something More Than Free:
No more holes to fill a nd no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes on the trucks for someone else’s sake
‘Cause a hammer needs a nail
And the poor man’s up for sale
Guess I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do
And I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
And every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt
But I thank God for the work
To the casual listener it might seem that Isbell’s characters possess little faith, because Isbell himself does not suffer the pabulum recited reflexively by the faithful at every tragedy. God might not be an “architect” ordering life; he’s more “like a pipe-bomb” that wrecks everything (“24 Frames”). But either by osmosis or a strong grip of the Holy Ghost, these folks still consider themselves among the faithful. Isbell is not shaming the Sunday backsliders but rather noting an economy that makes people into mere tools. His characters do not bother with church attendance, which is “just another kind of dope-sick” (“Relatively Easy” 2013). Rather, they partake in the literal opioid of the masses, available on every street corner just like houses of worship in the South, simply to ease their numbed backs and warm their frozen hands.
“If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety” form the “theological” core of The Nashville Sound. “Vampires” laments temporality, while admitting that “Maybe time running out is a gift” opposed to imagining a forever (as vampires) where little moments are taken for granted. Instead, Isbell recognizes, “Maybe we’ll get forty years together/But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone.”
For this reason, “Anxiety” anchors the entire album. Temporality has caught up to white people, workers, really anyone who believed their heirs would be as numerous as the stars. Yet their name will not be great. They will vanish. It’s a universal angst where all people admit the chest-crushing pressure they feel at this moment. In this vein Isbell confesses for us all:
It’s the weight of the world
But it’s nothing at all
Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall
You got to give me a minute
Because I’m way down in it
And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak
I want to be strong and steady, always ready
Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak
How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a g*d* thing
After the ride of introspection, Isbell ends the album, fittingly, with “Hope the High Road,” an attempt at a reconciliatory passing of the peace.
Much like dropping one’s gift at the altar in order to reconcile with another member of the community (Matthew 5:21-26), Isbell reaches out to those hurting, even those he’s given voice to, by offering something better than bitterness:
I heard enough of the white man’s blues
I’ve sang enough about myself
So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere else
Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in a ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road
“Hope” is not idealistic “Waiting on the World to Change” drivel. It is a song of deep empathy forged in the knock-down, drag-out family fights that often result in more than hurt feelings. It’s Isbell’s way of saying to the vanishing that they are seen and loved. Yet he still draws a line in the sand, singing, “There can’t be more of them than us,” which feels apt in a time when white supremacists have found cover to express their bankrupt ideology. The lyric signals an arms-linked march out into the mire. It’s a fight song sung by lambs, better suited for churches than for political campaigns.
The album’s final track “Something to Love” is clearly autobiographical, as Isbell talks of learning gospel tunes from family members on Sunday nights. Likewise, he and wife Amanda Shires pass on a similar message to their daughter:
Don’t quite recognize the world you call home
Just find what makes you happy girl and do it ’til you’re gone
I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it’ll serve you well
In this way, The Nashville Sound concludes like a benediction and sending forth. The good news breaks through in the simplest of messages passed down to every generation: Go. Love. Be a light, because some feel as if they are vanishing and will do some unholy things to be noticed.
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