Home and the High Road

Jason Isbell is one of my bellwethers. He sings the things I’m feeling before I can put them in words.

Take, for instance, his new single “Hope the High Road.” It’s my new theme song. And not just because I enjoy just about everything the former Drive-By Trucker has done the past four years. No, he has tapped into the rich vein of my hopefulness.

The most important lyric to me (heck, it’s the title of the song):

Wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again.

Because where I am is, I have reached an accommodation with the election and its inevitable consequences—that there is and likely will continue for some time to be a President Trump. And he is going to be able to do some things I disapprove of—denigrate science, facts, and many people, especially vulnerable people. But he can be opposed. He can be held accountable. He can be constrained by values of compassion and hope. And maybe, maybe, as his governing faction splinters and fights among itself, he can be lured to less-pain-filled policy (if policy is even the right word for the product of his actions).

Personally, I can protect my sanity and my sense of humor. These last few weeks I have been silly more than I can remember in months. I count this a huge victory, as I think that part of the political strategy of these first 100 days was to overwhelm dissent with a barrage of mean-tempered executive actions and make people like me despair.

Well, I am not despairing. I am called to engage with and protect those who are most vulnerable AND engage with those who thought Trump was their only option, especially my friends, as they’re easier to grab a beer with than people in Kentucky. I don’t want to argue, because I don’t think arguing accomplishes anything. I don’t want to present an ideological alternative, because ideology is apparently at low ebb. What I want is to ask all people what home means to them, and invite them to consider how to make home a reality for everyone.

For me, home is:

  • safe
  • sustaining
  • warm
  • where I’m known
  • forgiving
  • accountable
  • a refuge

What is home to you? I’d love to read others’ replies below.

I think it’s possible we can walk this high road home together, at least those who choose to. And I have a glimmer of hope that our president can see that following this high road might give him the broader-based approval he so obviously wants. I wouldn’t go to Vegas and put money down on it, but hope isn’t a calculation.

And if we continue on the current track, I will grind it out and fight like heck for the values of liberty, compassion, and truth that are foundational to my home and to the motivators of our country’s best moments.

Which brings me back to Isbell and his song, which gave voice to my intentions:

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

A Father-Son Talk With Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell is my favorite singer/songwriter. Has been for about two years now, since the release of his album Southeastern. So I was super-excited to have a chance to speak with him last month for an article about Father’s Day, fathers and sons. Isbell has a song in which he recounts the advice his dad gave him as the 21-year-old Isbell set off on the road with the hard-livin’ band Drive-By Truckers. (Here’s a very funny story about the song.)

The discussion morphed into a lot of other directions, including what saved his life and why he thinks checklists are a bad idea. Here is a transcript of our discussion, with my parts paraphrased (sorry, I didn’t need it for the article, so I didn’t transcribe my parts).

What happened when you shared “Outfit” with your dad for the first time?

I was probably 21 or 22, and it was one of the first songs I’d written after I’d first gone on the road with the Drive-By Truckers. It would have been late 2001 or early 2002. I brought a guitar on over and sat down and played it for him. I believe that’s what happened. Probably because we didn’t have a recording of it. You know, he liked it a lot. He has a good sense of humor and he understands what parts of that song are serious and what parts aren’t. And even the parts that aren’t are in tribute to the kind of person he is.

He’s a good listener, so he knew exactly what I was talking about when I sang it for him.

Continue reading “A Father-Son Talk With Jason Isbell”

When You Can’t Stop Listening

I’ve been totally engrossed in Jason Isbell’s new album, Southeastern. This happens to me occasionally. Here are the albums I can think of that had the deepest hold on me at some point in my (now long) life:

Eagles, Greatest Hits Vol 1. Back in the ’80s, I had a Sony portable CD player that I took with me whenever I drove the Datsun 710 wagon that had been my mom’s until she handed it off for the kids’ use (the kids, at that point, being me). It didn’t plug into anything; it just sat on the passenger’s seat and played through its tiny, tinny speakers. And the Eagles was what I played while driving around—all day, every day, for months. Take It Easy … Lyin’ Eyes, Desperado, all those Henley/Frey tunes. It ends with The Best of My Love. There was no shuffle back in those days, so it always ended with Best of My Love. Then I started over again. God, I loved the Eagles. There are few things in life like listening to Don Henley sing.

Dire Straits, Making Movies. I’d always been kinda intrigued by Mark Knoppler’s group, but I was a bit of a miser and I didn’t like to, you know, part with my money. For anything. So it was a big step when I bought this—and fell helplessly, hopelessly in love. If it wasn’t for there being so few songs (7, and I didn’t like the last one, Les Boys), it was just about perfect. The first four are still 20 minutes of rock-n-roll heaven (Tunnel of Love, Skateaway, Romeo and Juliet, Espresso Love).

Patty Griffin, Living With Ghosts. I still can’t tell you why I picked this up, in 1997, but from the first gangly guitar chords of Moses, I was hooked—and have been ever since by Griffin. This album is so spare—it  is essentially her demo tapes and just voice and guitar (which she strums into submission, basically)—that it hits you like a ton of bricks. Every Little Bit, Poor Man’s House, Sweet Lorraine are just the most beautiful, awful songs you can imagine. I’ve played this album, end to end, about 2,000 times. Virginia still finds Griffin’s warble a bit of a test, but she’s survived 17 years of it.

The Doors, LA Woman. I was a huge Doors fan as a teen, and this was the most played of the bunch. Strongest, bluesiest, with lots of throwaways-with-great-hooks (The WASP, Been Down So Long, Crawling King Snake) plus two all-time greats, the title song and Riders on the Storm. The Doors haven’t held up particularly well over time, I don’t listen to this full-through like I do many of the others, but it reminds me of a time and a posture in my life (that I don’t really miss much).

U2, Rattle and Hum. The Joshua Tree is about the start of my adult musical sensibility, but Rattle and Hum got even more playing time becauseit was about the best live album ever. You got all the Joshua faves, plus Desire, Angel of Harlem, All Along the Watchtower, When Love Comes to Town, and Helter Skelter. I still want to cry when the chorus pipes up in I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Played for about 3 weeks straight in my Acura Integra while sports editor at the Del State News in Dover, Del., in 1988.

John Hiatt, Bring the Family. Maybe my favorite album ever. Picked this up while working my first job, in Dover, Del., after reading a story on the AP wire about Hiatt. My tastes were not particularly twangy at that time, but the songwriting, Ry Cooder’s production and Hiatt’s voice wowed me in a way that I’ve never quite experienced again. Not a bad song in the bunch, with highlights being Have a Little Faith in Me (still regret this not being my first dance with Virginia at our wedding), Alone in the Dark, Thing Called Love, Your Dad Did, and Learning How to Love You. I really enjoyed the album after this, Slow Turning, but there’s something about Family, which hits my soft spot for redemptive efforts by talented, twangy storytellers (see next).

Jason Isbell, Southeastern. I read a profile of Isbell in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, but I wasn’t expecting anything great when I found the album on Spotify. I knew Isbell remotely from his Drive-By Truckers work, but the Truckers were very  hit-and-miss for me. I listened to Relatively Easy and found it a jangly charmer. But nothing prepared me for my head-over-heels infatuation when I listened to the whole album. The songs unwind like Southern short stories. Elephant is a deft, unsparing account of a friend’s bout with cancer. Live Oak is a true-crime-story head-shrink classic. The rest are simply great. It’s a tour de force I haven’t yet been able to move past. As with Hiatt, Isbell’s newly sober and seems to sit on a ridgeline where he can clearly see the bad ol’ days and the sun rising on the horizon.

What are your can’t-stop-listening favorite albums? Add in comments below. Or reply on Twitter/Facebook.