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Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues”

On war, imagery and power




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The instant Jason Isbell hit town with “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” on the Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day album, it was clear that he was a gifted songwriter. His fellow Truckers must have thought so to, naming the record after one of the new guy’s tunes as they did. Right out of the gate, Isbell leaned on straight talk and simple language to create scenes that’d stick with you for weeks, none more indelible than the father steering his boy down a better path and warning him “and don't let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy man’s paint.” A couple Drive-By Trucker albums down the road and now as an ex-Trucker with a solo effort to his name, Isbell continues to astound. “Dress Blues,” the centerpiece of his debut Sirens of the Ditch, breaks your heart and mists your eyes with such skillful precision that you never feel manipulated. It’s a political song that doesn’t beat you senseless with its politics, and it’s a sentimental song that doesn’t steamroll you with sentiment. It’s the sound of emotion slowly being released. He’s still mighty good at setting those memorable scenes, too, with color playing a major role in “Dress Blues.” In addition to the impact of the “blues” in the title, there’s the “red, white and blue in the rafters” and the image that floors me every time: the contrast of the people dressed in black drinking sweet tea out of bone-white Styrofoam cups.

All said, it’s a song strong enough to, apparently, stand up to any arrangement. I’ve heard three—the album version found here, a stripped-down take to be found on the Web, and the achingly spare solo presentation—and I’ve also imagined a Southern soul version in my head, complete with horns. Each seems to carry its own brand of heartache, its own sense of loss. That’s a testament to the song and the songwriter. Here’s what Jason Isbell had to say about images and arrangements and, ultimately, the power of a song.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: “Dress Blues” is full of striking images, from scripture on grocery store signs to a gymnasium full of flowers and old legionnaires. Was the song sparked by one image in particular that you encountered?

JASON ISBELL: I remember coming home after Matthew Conley’s death and noticing the American flags lining the highway that was later named after him. That’s what really began the process of that song for me. After that, it was just a matter of searching my memory for more details.

I’m going to stick with the images for a minute because there are so many memorable ones in the song, with color playing a big role. Do you see that ability to create such images to be one of your strengths as a songwriter, and how important do you think that visual aspect of a song is?

I think a songwriter is most effective when he or she paints a clear mental picture of the situation. So yes, color can play a big part. It’s interesting to me how symbolic colors are within the realm of war. Yellow ribbons, various flags, uniforms. War is a very colorful thing.

“Dress Blues” is the kind of poignant song (with scenes and a message that are both timely and timeless) that can make a strong connection and inspire people to share personal stories with the author. Has that happened?

Very much so. I’ve heard from numerous families across the country who have been affected by the story. It seems like a lot of Americans are dealing with these issues right now.

Do you have a favorite way to present “Dress Blues”? And does it take a special kind of song to stand up to all those different arrangements, or are most songs that versatile?

I like playing the song with a full band, but I think it works in a solo setting. That’s really more about the structural nature than anything, though. I guess the fact that the lyrics are so integral to the song makes it easy to deliver.

To my ears, some songs are designed to tell a story and not much more, while others, like “Dress Blues,” clearly have a point to make. Kind of songwriting’s version of fiction vs. nonfiction. Do you every worry about blurring the lines between the two or whether the listener can discern that line between fiction and nonfiction?

I don’t really worry about it. I just try to write honestly. That doesn’t mean every story is literally true, but all the characters are real to me. They almost have to be, even if some characteristics are borrowed and moved around. It’s important to have a mental image of who you’re writing about, almost as if you were writing a novel or a screenplay.

“Dress Blues” reminds me of Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams’ version of John Prine’s “Sam Stone” for several reasons, including the overwhelming emotion in the song (and the vocals) and the message. I’d define both as powerful, a word that’s overused when talking about songs, but I stand by it here. Can you share a few songs that hit you hard and that you'd define as “powerful.”

“Sam Stone” is certainly one of them. I really like Laura Cantrell’s version. Maybe it's because her voice is so sweet and childlike. “No More Buffalo” by James McMurtry is a really moving song for me. It’s allegorical and describes the changes faced by traveling musicians. Of course there are tons of Dylan songs I could list. “Across the Wire” by Calexico really touches me. Lots of nice detail in there. I could go on forever, I guess.

Jason Isbell plays Lincoln Theatre Sunday, Dec. 30, at 8 p.m. with Will Hoge and American Aquarium. Tickets are $13-$15.

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