Bobbie Ann Mason once wrote how simple words at difficult times can be an act of bravery, and I’m reminded of that whenever a terrific country song like this comes along. A trucker (or it could be a musician on the road; I prefer trucker) is driving through a snowstorm; no one warned him the road he’s on has been closed. He claims to have “quit talking to himself,” but that’s exactly what he does as tries to keep his rig from skidding out of control. He thinks of what his life on the road has taught him–he “knows every town worth passing through”–and remembers excesses from the past, of being “damn near strangled by my appetite.” (I love the specificity of the Ybor City reference in this verse.) The music is quiet, the voice exhausted but urgent, working itself up to an epiphany. Which, when it comes, is a cliche we’ve all heard before: he’s tired of traveling alone. He wants someone to share this ride with. But as in the best country songs, these cliche’d words burst with emotion through some magic caused at least in part by them coming from a recognizable character and from a scenario that’s simultaneously literal and metaphorical: who hasn’t fought second gear while on a slippery slope, or wondered if their own heart, “like a rebuilt part,” has anything left in it.
A female voice joins on the “traveling alone” chorus: it turns out this is Isbell’s wife, another musician named Amanda Shires. The character in the song only gets to the point of asking someone to ride with him, and there’s something satisfying in knowing in this beyond-the-text way she said yes. But it didn’t have to be a girl. What I like about the song is how open-ended it is: the “you” addressed in the chorus could be God, could be a friend, could be an AA sponsor. What’s most important is the acknowledgement of loneliness, and the resolve to do something about it.
I’m quite taken with the whole album this song is from, which is called “Southeastern.” It has a post-rehab Steve Earle feel without sounding anything like Steve Earle. (What it does sound like is Ryan Adams with more on his mind and less of a tendency to genre-hop, or another country guy named Bob Woodruff whose first album I loved back in the nineties but who’s dropped off the radar as far as I know.) Other reviews have taken pains to say it’s not a recovery record, but of course it is, just a really good one that understands recovery as a fragile, never-ending process, not a destination. Song after song worries the schism between who the singer was and who he is now. (Isbell has spoken in interviews about having recently achieved sobriety after years of life-on-the-road alcohol and drug abuse.) “There’s a man who walks beside me he is who I used to be,” “Ten years ago I might have…used her in a thousand different ways.” I hear interesting questions: What’s the connection between the man who hurt and used people and who I am today? Does being a better man now bury my previous self, erase the past? Or is that man still inside me, just a drink or six away?
To the last question, the album seems to answer a resounding and realistic yes. There’s a separation from yourself that’s necessary to move on from addiction: but also a duality you have to learn to live with to keep yourself from going back. I wish Jason luck, and hope he has lots more albums in him as good as this one.