Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
I think there's a big difference between the 60-year-old man who sits in the crummy bar on the outskirts of town, the one that's so familiar it both hurts and soothes - the one that's nothing more than a glorified tool shed with a pool table and a bartender, and a 30-year-old man who does the same. They are both guys who belly up to the bar and when the inquiry comes, "What'll you have?" their response is common and predictable. They are men with a drink, with a taste for whiskey and beer, rarely anything peculiar. It's better for them to just stick with a prescription that has proven viable and effective for as long as they care to remember, though they're not in the memory business when it comes to many things, just the scarring, disastrous matters that have left them poorer and lonelier.
The difference between the 60-year-old and the 30-year-old is that one's already been through the fiery fires and the other is in the process of lighting his own bed afire, prepping himself for what's sure to come. There have already been some predicaments and some episodes, epically heated and memorable, but they've assured themselves of more - all that much more wicked and jarring.
Jason Isbell, the one-time member of one of the greatest modern-day American bands the Drive-By Truckers, seems to split the difference between that fogey and the young buck, both encroaching and thriving on the acreage plowed and sowed, harvested and then planted again by the old country and bluegrass men who couldn't help but get tangled up in the miserable guts and vines of women and booze and the volatile interactions that are bound to take place, historically repeating themselves on all of the suspecting many. Isbell digs into these time-honored situations like a boy tamping a spade into the moist soil searching for night crawlers to take to the lake with a fishing hole. There's all of the general sadness and reverence toward the matters of destruction and heartbreak, or ultimately replicating the same mistakes again and again that have plagued the otherwise solid and fundamentally admired relationships between men and women since the beginning of time, but there's something like a comfortable fit to these stories as well, as if there wasn't anything finer than a good tale of heartbreak. There is something so tasty and mouth-watering about a man -- good, bad, deserving, undeserving -- getting his shit handed to him. It's almost as if he should be able to take it, should be able to handle all of the repercussions, should be able to hold it together to bounce on to the next. But sometimes there is no next and there is more of a deep-seeded squalor and tear that cannot be fixed in a man. Sometimes there's a recognition that this one, this time was a bad one. There were bottoms, maybe several that were hit and it's a long way back up. There may not be the kind of strength needed to get there.
And that's where Isbell takes us, to the bottom of the quarry, to the deepest depressions and valleys and it's funny how there are taverns there - the kind of darkened and morose dens of desperate, despondent and dilapidated men of every age. We're taken to the stool right beside all of them and we hear them hack the tar from their sorry lungs, we hear them mumble epitaphs and bits and pieces of the sad turns that their lives have taken and we're fascinated by it all. It takes us into the souls of men who, like clockwork, pull up to the closest convenience store at a little after 5 p.m. every afternoon and buy their six-pack, which they'll finish before dinner and then they'll go out for a nightcap, just to top off the tank and be amongst their brothers. When Isbell sings, "Love leaves you no choice in the matter/There ain't a damn thing sadder than a man in the throes of something real," we're all trading off rounds and listening to the sorrows talk themselves out in a dingy bar that at least some people call home.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Official Site
Lightning Rod Records