Last Monday, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Alabama songwriter Jason Isbell on the eve of the release of his much awaited album Southeastern. Isbell, known for his deeply personal and raw songs about life on the road and facing down his demons, had recently married fellow musician, Amanda Shires, and cleaned up his act. Many die-hard Isbell fans wondered if his writing would remain as raw.
Tunes like “Alabama Pines,” an homage to life on the road in cheap motel rooms and lines acknowledging the fear of “being by myself without a little help on a Sunday afternoon.” were staples of Isbell’s repertoire. “Alabama Pines” was the 2012 Americana Awards Song of the Year for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the band he assembled after a successful stint and amicable split with Alabama’s Drive-by Truckers. For a listen to Isbell with the Truckers check out the Southern anthem “Ain’t Never Gonna Change” and the haunting“Goddamn Lonely Love” both Isbell songs.
Never one to shy away from the elephant in the room, Isbell addresses his concerns of losing some of his edge in the NPR interview and admits there is always something left behind when one changes direction. (By the way, Elephant, about a dying woman, is one of the most haunting of Isbell’s songs from Southeastern.)
But lucky for us, Isbell knows the rules of great writing. What we have all been told throughout our careers — write what you know.
This he does on Southeastern
He opens his heart and soul to us — not an easy thing to do when you’re not used to facing demons “without a little help.” He attributes his ability to do so to Shires, his wife, who helped to pull him out of the drunken haze that had become his life.
The result is a record of gut-wrenching songs that leaves the listener breathless. And the writer asking the question: Why can’t I do that?
So what can writers learn from Isbell?
First, don’t let fear stop you from writing what you know. Only you know the depths to which you can reach to tell the story. If the story is one of pain, stick to it, relive it, write it down honestly and don’t sugar coat it. If it is one of joy, don’t be superficial. A true sharing of soul will ring true with your audience, even when the characters are fictitious. We shouldn’t shy away from leaving a bit of blood and tears on the page. Tears of joy are as salty as ones of sorrow. Just don’t soak the page with Visine.
Second, keep it real. When Isbell sings “Cover Me Up” about his realization that he is falling in love and must change or die, it’s not a sunshine and flowers love song. How could it be? His lyrics are brutally honest. So be brutally honest in your own writing.
When I published Flamingo Funeral, there were some people in my life who felt strongly I had gone too far with the language. I thought about it seriously for a week, even delaying publication while I did a bit of soul searching. But I decided I couldn’t change a thing because those characters are who they are. Nor do I add profanity for shock value.The characters must say what they say. Behave the way they behave. If you are taking away or adding to your story because you think it will sell a book or not offend, you are not being honest. You have to know your characters and keep them honest.
Third, write tight. If you’re not sure what I mean by this, please listen to Southeastern. Every word is placed precisely. It is poetry. Isbell tells a story like no other. Edit and edit again.Then get someone else to edit.
I have often wished I could write a short story like Isbell writes a song. Honest and raw and precise. To say exactly what I want to say with the right metaphor, the right verb, the right adjective. I may never achieve that high ambition. But I’m glad he has done so with Southeastern. Each time I listen to it, I peel back another layer and am again totally blown away by the talent of this fine songwriter.
Oh, and his picking and singing is pretty damn awesome, too.
So, thank you Jason Isbell for another fine album and a lesson for all of us struggling writers.
Hear/Read Isbell’s NPR Interview here.
Buy Southeastern by Jason Isbell here.