My Mixtape: Jason Isbell


Note: this originally started as a review of Isbell's show at the Goodyear Theater in Akron, Ohio. The show was dope. We saw him two weeks later in Maryland with Chris Stapleton and Frank Tuner. That lineup was killer on paper and in person. But I'm more of a storyteller than I am a reviewer. So, here's how I got into Jason Isbell, one of the performers that I will drop everything and take a trip to go and see.

The first time I ever heard Jason Isbell was when I was talking to this guy I met on OkCupid. He worked a lot, and was constantly on AIM (back in the death throes of instant messaging). I used to use AIM for work, so I was also always on. He didn't always have time to chat, so sometimes he'd just send links to songs he was listening to. One of the ones I remember most was Goddamn Lonely Love by Drive-By Truckers.

I could really, really relate to the song. Earlier that year, I had finally found the wherewithal to leave my longest term (and also most abusive) relationship. I thought the best way to get over him was to start having an affair with a friend of mine. To deal with not only the heartbreak and confusion of leaving my abuser, but also to combat actually feeling the feelings of hurt and shame, I started to party heavily. I had many nights where I wasn't falling asleep, I was fading to black.

But I tried to get into Drive-By Truckers, and they just didn't do it for me. I just loved that song, but mostly forgot about it.

About a year after first hearing that song, I was dating a guy who I didn't love, but he argued his way into a relationship with me. He used to take me to a lot of shows and he lived an hour away from me, so I rolled with it. He asked me if I wanted to go and see Ryan Adams, who at the time was doing a solo acoustic tour. Solo? Acoustic? Shit yes, sign me up.

The opener was Jason Isbell. He was up there, in all black, bleeding all over the stage. I could feel the heartbreak. The polarizing feeling of knowing who you are and also who you were. I could feel the substances. The nights spent curled up under a blanket, wondering if you would see the sun come up in the morning.

And then he did Goddamn Lonely Love. Completely stripped down, but with more guts and blood and soul all over it.

I cried.

I recently told Kurt that going to see that show was like getting hit in the dick twice, and I don't even have one. Hearing Ryan Adams do "Come Pick Me Up" after surviving "Goddamn Lonely Love"was almost too much for the me of that time period, a human tornado of shame and shitty behavior.

I went home and immediately bought Southeastern, Isbell's first solo album. The lyrics hung in the air, like cloudy memories of a life someone was trying to move away from. But, like ghosts tend to do at first, they jump out and scare you sometimes.

I eventually ran out on the guy I never loved. I got in some Bad Situations. I fell in with a group of performers who were easy to love, because they didn't love themselves, and all I wanted to do was love another empty person. Anything to kill my own goddamned lonely love.

During this time, I saw Isbell with the 400 Unit at Musica, a club here in Akron that is around 350 capacity and my favorite place to go see shows in town. The crowd was the best. Isbell's voice knocked the rust off of the city. Goddamned Lonely Love wrapped itself around my shoulders like one of my grandmother's old shawls.

I took a trip to visit an old boyfriend, and he assaulted me while I was there. Through the help of some generous, loving friends, I was able to get out and get home ahead of schedule. I listened to Southeastern and Craig Finn's "Clear Heart Full Eyes", and I went home feeling broken, but with purpose.

I met Kurt when I wasn't looking. Because I was too messy. I was figuring shit out, but was in no way ready for a relationship. But we finally met, ate macaroni and cheese, drank bourbon, told stories, and went home together. I woke up with him the next day, hoping i'd see him again.

Early on, we went to his practice space, to pick up some gear and to hang out for a bit. He turned on Southeastern. We sat on a junky plaid couch and talked about the times we had seen Isbell live.

Fast forward six months. We went to see Isbell at House of Blues. Craig Finn was the opener. It was my dream bill,with my dream guy.

In the old lover's scene
I thought it'd be me
Who helped him get home

But home was dream
One that I'd never seen
Til you came along

That was also the night that Kurt first met Craig, over drinks at bars that we wouldn't normally drink in, which Finn and I seem to really excel at, which is one reason I love our friendship.

Kurt and I have seen Isbell at least three times since then. He's always been good, but as the years tick by, he gets better. It's taken me a while to warm up to Something More than Free, but I've come around to it.

Southeastern feels familiar to me now in different ways. A lot of times, I feel like the song Different Days. But I feel like the narrator, not the character in the song.

When we saw him at Merriweather Pavillion a couple weeks ago, the song "How to Forget" caught my attention. Because that's where I'm at now. I have no idea why I feel like people need to know I'm in a functional, loving, amazing partnership that I could not possibly be more happy about. I wonder if those people I used, those people who used me, know. Why do I care? I think that's how some people who deal with guilt act. You live with this guilt, most of whom have faces. And when you become better, you wonder if they're better.

I just need to know how to not care about any of that anymore. Just care about where I'm at now, and who i'm there with. You know, the important shit.

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