For Christmas, Anthony gave me a mysterious large box. Unwrapping it, I found layer after layer of tissue paper and decoy items, all labeled "This is not Stacy's gift." Deep inside the box was an envelope proclaiming itself to contain my real gift--tickets to see the amazing Jason Isbell.
I can't even list all the things I loved about this present. It was a total surprise, and clever, and not a piece of stuff that would just take up space. And while Jason Isbell had already passed through Atlanta when I couldn't go, these tickets were for the show in Knoxville, Anthony's hometown, at a theatre where he used to do plays as a teenager. I'd never been to the Bijou, so I was excited about that. Plus, on this leg of Isbell's tour, my girl Holly Williams was opening for him!
So this week we drove to Knoxville on a gorgeous clear winter day, stayed with Anthony's mom for a couple of days, met his high school best friend for dinner at The Bistro (loved it) and went to the show. It was really kind of a magical night. Really damn cold, but magical.
You ever have the experience of witnessing somebody do something they're really, really good at--whatever that might be--and you just want to say, THANK YOU? Thank you for sharing this ability you have, this thing you have created! That's what this show was like. It was an honor just to be in the room to hear these songs.
Isbell's Southeastern was my favorite album of 2013. I don't write songs, but this music just plain makes me want to be a better writer, period. A musician friend of mine described Isbell's writing as "precise," and yes, that's exactly it. I love plenty of artists who write abstract lyrics, but the words that really stop me in my tracks are the ones that create a picture that I can't get out of my head. It's a matter of riveting storytelling, and lyrics that make you see things in new ways.
And that's what listening to Southeastern is like for me. Some of the songs are really raw, powerful slices from Isbell's life. Others, like "Yvette" and "Elephant" are devastating, self-contained stories that come from his imagination. Make no mistake, folks--this music is literature. That precision of language that my friend talked about? It's what creates a new way to express ideas we've all heard countless times before. Isbell doesn't say, "A woman left me, and I miss her," he says, "The songs that she sang in the shower are stuck in my head/ Like 'Bring Out Your Dead'/ And 'Breakfast In Bed.'" He doesn't say, "Hey, baby, let's do it all night," he says, "Girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain't leaving this room."
During this song, the whole room sat perfectly still in their seats, then rose in stunned applause. An amazing thing to witness. A great gift.