Jason Isbell has made a big name for himself since his stint in the influential country-rock band Drive by Truckers ended in 2007. Over the last thirteen years, he has released several successful albums as a solo act and with his band, the 400 Unit, defying the odds by refusing to make records that easily please country music fans. Nevertheless, his new album, Reunions, has already hit number 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart. Isbell is a superb guitar player who hails from North Alabama, and was raised on a combination of the famous music of Muscle Shoals and a Church of Christ religious upbringing where instruments were forbidden. He is a recovering alcoholic, who is now happily married to fellow musician Amanda Shires, with whom he has a young daughter. Isbell has been through a lot, and has a lot to say with his warm, raspy voice.
From what I’ve seen, Isbell does not claim membership in any Christian community now; but Reunions is rife with God.
The album begins with a captivating anthem about personal responsibility and service to others. Isbell considers his comfortable, self-sufficient life and asks himself, “What have I done to help?” But instead of wallowing in his shortcomings or moralizing others, he acknowledges a need beyond his own will that can enable him to do good. He cries, “Somebody save me!” If you don’t love God and receive his love first, your chances of properly loving or helping another person are slim. As St. John tells us, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). St. Augustine elaborates, “By God’s grace we love him who first loved us, in order to believe in him, and by loving him we perform good works.”
“Dreamsicle” is an upbeat but heartbreaking reflection from a late Gen-Xer from a broken home. It will resonate deeply with the millions of men who lament aspects of their childhood and are trying to do better for their own families: “Why can’t daddy just come home? Forget whatever he did wrong. He’s in a hotel all alone, and we need help.”
“Only Children” is another story set in desperate times, where people “do what the broken people do,” but where divine intervention hovers near. Isbell sings, “The Holy Ghost could get inside you and do whatever you put your mind to.” Isbell continues working through pain on the gorgeous “Overseas,” imagining a landscape so bleak that “even the ghosts got out,” and where “I saw you losing faith.” Nonetheless love goes on, even if it “won’t change a thing.”
Isbell’s guitar playing evokes Mark Knopfler on the low-key “Running with Our Eyes Closed,” and Ryan Adams on “Be Afraid,” where Isbell offers a sharp critique of mainstream music, declaring his continued intention to say something worthwhile. He sings, “If your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice.” Or as Jesus says, “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).
“St. Peter’s Autograph” is a love letter to someone losing hope—a fact that Isbell relates to, and yet depicts as a great sadness, with a remedy available. His line “we’re all struggling with a world on fire” is eerily prescient. On the track “It Gets Easier,” Isbell dreams he can go back to casual drinking, when in waking life he knows his addiction will overpower him if he underestimates it. Many Christians will find encouragement from the reminder that resisting temptation can be excruciating, but not impossible. “Letting You Go” is a touching waltz about Isbell’s daughter, in the style of Waylon Jennings. It will bring a tear to any parent’s eye.
Right in the middle of the record is “The River.” Of all the album’s tracks, this ballad could just about work on the stage of today’s Grand Old Opry or on mainstream country radio. It’s a gentle, twangy delight, and the lyrics offer the most theological depth of all ten of Reunions’ spiritually significant songs. For a Catholic, it is hard not to notice traditional sacramental imagery punching through New Age pantheism:
The river is my savior
Only one I’ll ever need
Wash my head when I’ve been sinning
Wash my knuckles when they bleed.
Isbell continues, “The river hears my secrets, things I cannot tell a soul,” and the sacred waters offer permanent refreshment from “the lake of fire,” which “consumes me in my dreams.” Isbell concludes, “I’ll lay myself inside her and let her carry me.” It sounds a lot like Baptism and life on board the ship of salvation, the Church.
Reunions is a particularly beautiful trip down memory lane from a Christ-haunted southerner. Treat your ears and your soul to this country rock classic.