This was the summer of live music for my two little girls. It started when I took my oldest, a five-year-old, to see Dead & Company out in Arizona, where I was working on a Grateful Dead adjacent documentary with the band. When would I get this kind of access again? My daughter ran around on the stage during sound check, played freeze tag by the big tractor-trailers and ate a rose-shaped cookie on Mickey Hart’s bus. She got home and talked about the whole thing to her sister, unbeknownst to us, and they must have talked about the actual music, because it wasn’t long before little Louise, all of two, started asking when it would be her turn to fly in an airplane “though the clouds” and “go see a band” like her sister. I called up the management of Jason Isbell, who has always been far too generous with me bugging him about hookups, and a few days later Louise and I were on an airplane south to St. Augustine Amphitheater. We almost canceled the trip because of her age. She won’t remember, we said. She’s too young to deal with an airport, we said. But ultimately I just decided to risk it.
We got to the backstage entrance to the venue and checked in with the tour office. They got her set up with a sticky pass that covered up most of her tiny little dress. I got her headphones to dull the incredibly loud noise of a rock-n-roll soundcheck, which because of the empty seats always seems somehow even louder than the show itself. Louise romped through catering where keyboard player Derry deBorja helped her find a yogurt. She ate chips and rolled on the floor. We ran around through the road cases—Isbell in white-spray paint—and when the noodling and tuning started from the stage we went down to the GA pit. She wanted to race from one end to the other so we did that. Jason came out and waved to her, calling her name on the microphone, and then counted off the band. The music started and Louise, who had never seen live music before, stood transfixed. She sat down in my lap and let the sound wash over her. As the first song ended, her little feet began to tap. She got up and started twirling—a 1989 Grateful Dead crowd at Shoreline never twirled with more vigor or less inhibition—and couldn’t stop grinning. Isbell romped through “24 Frames” and “The Life You Chose” and Louise danced, and laughed, and twirled, and when it ended, we went over to the beach and ate chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream and then we ran on the sand and looked for shells to take her big sister.
The next episode of the southern food and culture television show I make with my friends, TrueSouth on the SEC Network and ESPN+, is a searing story of addiction. This is an American story of our time, and certainly the Southern story. Heroin, alcohol, oxy and meth have hollowed out already dying rural communities whose whole purpose for existing was ripped away by agricultural mechanization. I’ve buried two cousins. People often find ways to deal with the death of their cultural inheritance, whether a populist strongman, a bottle of cheap vodka or a needle. Jason Isbell’s songs are the most clear-eyed soundtrack of this decaying world that currently exists and, in my opinion, he is one of a scarce few country musicians who is actually confronting the place where we live as it is, not as it might exist in some sepia toned fantasy whose vaguely sketched boundaries are as insulting to rural Americans as they are false. He graciously let us use his songs to score this latest episode.
In many ways Jason’s risky honesty is a north star for our show. I say risky because he has intentionally limited his own audience by putting the art of his work above the commerce of it. He puts his progressive politics on display, at the cost of potential customers who would definitely see themselves and their families in his lyrics. I know how hard that is to do because I sometimes don’t have the courage to make the same stand myself. My admiration for Jason could not be higher. I don’t know whether he’s older or younger than I, and it feels like cheating right now to look it up, but I would like my artistic life to be more like his when I grow up.