The Anniversary

Southeastern Turns 10

Southeastern Records
Southeastern Records

By the time he released Southeastern, Jason Isbell was 34 and had already lived a few lives. There’d been the teenager cutting his teeth around Alabama, the 21-year-old signing a publishing deal with the hallowed Muscle Shoals outpost FAME Studios. Then there was the range-y twenty-something joining up with the alt-country travelers Drive-By Truckers. Isbell proved himself a prodigious young songwriter along the way, but also a man prone to self-sabotage. The Truckers booted him out in 2007, and he embarked on a solo career. All through those years, Isbell lived the life of a wild man on the road, drinking himself into oblivion. When Southeastern arrived, 10 years ago this Sunday, it began yet another life for Isbell — one that kicked off the decade-long ascension we’ve watched since.

When he was still just dating Amanda Shires, there were a few times when Isbell got drunk and told her he needed to quit drinking — she replied that if he said it one more time, she’d hold him to it. That led to an intervention, including Isbell’s family, his manager, and then-friend Ryan Adams. After a stint in rehab, he re-emerged and had nothing to do but work on songs; he’s talked about unlocking a different focus and intent, as opposed to the commonly repeated fear and/or myth that the removal of chemical amplification would also equal creative bankruptcy. These were the songs that would become Southeastern, Isbell’s level-up breakthrough.

The name Southeastern came from childhood, referencing a tool and die shop that Isbell’s father worked at in Alabama. But of course, the word resounded more broadly. It had the ring of a memoir, Isbell coming into a clearer view of himself and, on the other side of tumultuous years of active addiction, making sense of the place that made him. The title could be a simple nod to his part of the States, to the musical traditions of northern Alabama that he grew up learning. But knowing what we know now, it was also like he was finally assuming a mantle. He had waited to use that word until an album that found him at a moment of great evolution.

Southeastern is a dense, often lyrically dark album. Yet at the same time, it portrayed a new Jason Isbell — sober, honing his craft, finding a new love. He stayed clean, and he and Shires got married just a few days after he wrapped recording on the album. The album is full of both despair and hope, tracing a destructive road that could have ended with Isbell dying a premature death but instead set up the redemption arc: Isbell the revered songwriter, Isbell the happy family man.

Many of the songs on Southeastern are character songs, but there always seems to be a bit of Isbell in the stories he’s telling. Rather than languishing in the bad old days or getting glib about his newfound sobriety, Isbell wove through heavy narratives — scars people carry with them, dead ends they run into, the occasional glimmer of an escape.

Plenty of this centered around the debauched life he’d recently left behind. In “New South Wales” he sings about how he’d rather drink his Listerine than “the piss they call tequila” and references “the sand they call cocaine.” Throughout, people are drunk and hurting. “Super 8,” the album’s lone straight-up rocker and a rare moment of levity, tells a story of a band partying in a motel, and a brawl, and ends with the narrator in a hospital pumped full of Pedialyte and joking the night would make for a great story if he could remember it. For Isbell’s part, he was ready to leave it all behind — “tired of traveling alone,” embracing a new life with Shires. Sobriety was a major narrative around Southeastern, and something Isbell’s talked about freely ever since. But the songs on this album aren’t from the perspective of someone who’s quite steady on their feet just yet. Compared to a much later track like Reunions‘ “It Gets Easier” — which acknowledges the never-ending struggle of long-term sobriety — Southeastern is still emerging from the wreckage.

There are lyrics you could read two ways: “There’s a man who walks beside me/ He is who I used to be/ And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me,” Isbell sings at the beginning of “Live Oak.” It sounds like he’s talking about himself, but the rest of the song is a murder ballad set in the 19th century. Similarly, the devastating fan favorite “Elephant” pulls from his real-life experience — sitting in a bar in Alabama watching the regulars die off — to depict two friends drinking away while trying to ignore that one’s cancer will soon kill her.

In those post-rehab days, Isbell spent his hours tightening and tightening his lyrics. It shows. There are sharp turns of phrase in each song, and powerful images abound. One that has always struck me is a stanza in “Relatively Easy,” a beautiful closer that ends the album with some amount of resolution to see the good in life, at least relative to the disasters of the past. Isbell sings:

I lost a good friend
Christmastime time when folks go off the deep end
His woman took the kids and he took Klonopin
Enough to kill a man twice his size

Not for me to understand
Remember him when he was still a proud man?
A vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand
Nothing but the blue sky in his eye

Like “Elephant” or “Yvette,” there is a brutal, heartbreaking character sketch in there. But it is also so incisive, so economical — it’s no wonder Southeastern garnered Isbell so much acclaim for his writing. You have a whole story there within the overarching story of “Relatively Easy.” He was operating on a different echelon now.

There is no clearer example of that then the album’s opener and calling card, “Cover Me Up.” If Southeastern was the reboot of Jason Isbell, “Cover Me Up” is the origin myth. It is one of the barest songs on an already deeply personal album; Isbell recalled that he and Shires would go into other rooms to write, then come back to share their songs, and he was nervous about how vulnerable “Cover Me Up” was when he first had to play it for her. Everything about where he was then is in this song — he “sobered up … swore off that stuff forever this time” and was not just losing himself in a new love, but finding someone who makes you better, whole. In someone else’s hands, the song could be trite, tumble into the idea of someone “saving you.” But with the grit of Isbell’s stories across Southeastern, there’s a realism to “Cover Me Up” — an overwhelming love, but not something that exists without a lot of hard work to get there.

“Cover Me Up” did find its way into other people’s hands, though. Years later, the song became something of a modern standard, covered by Luke Bryan and sung on The Voice. Though Isbell himself was rather famous by the end of the ’10s, the song’s surge in popularity was driven by Morgan Wallen’s rendition, which peaked at #52 on the Billboard Hot 100, surpassing any chart success that Isbell had on his own. (Since Wallen’s racist outburst in 2021, Isbell has been far more critical of the young superstar.) At the time, Wallen’s version of “Cover Me Up” kicked off a minor online controversy about “authentic” vs. pop country, as Isbell — alongside Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton — had become one of the avatars for the former.

All of that was relatively unimaginable when Isbell released Southeastern. Back then, he was that guy from Drive-By Truckers and his solo work had been successful in the Americana world. Southeastern gathered such esteem that every Isbell release since has been greeted as an increasingly significant event. His Twitter persona and his gregarious interviews helped speed it along. Isbell is now known as a gifted songwriter, and increasingly as a lovable protagonist — a far cry from the versions of himself glimpsed in the shadows of Southeastern. Now, he’s the guy who wrote music for A Star Is Born and is acting in a forthcoming Scorsese movie.

While Southeastern laid the foundation for further triumphs, it’s also one of those albums that will always loom over a career. There will be fans who found such an intensely open album as their first introduction to Isbell, and it will be hard to surpass the deep connection you develop with such works. There will be those who view Southeastern as raw and uncompromising in its subject matter, even if later albums would feature similarly striking writing about theoretically more mundane themes, like family life and watching your children age. Even now, four albums and 10 years on, Isbell’s having to field questions about surpassing Southeastern as he promotes his newest album Weathervanes. Maybe that will never go away, but you can’t imagine Isbell would ever want to be the man that made this album again. Southeastern remains powerful today not just for its own stories, but because of the other stories Isbell lived to tell afterwards.

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