Relatively Easy: Jason Isbell’s Southeastern at 10

Reflecting on the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s auspicious solo classic

Jason Isbell 2013 (Image: Southeastern Records)

Forget music or career, Jason Isbell’s life was at a crossroads as 2012 began.

The substance abuse, primarily alcohol, had escalated over the years. Even with his stellar songwriting contributions like “Decoration Day”, “Outfit”, “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love”, the rest of the Drive-By Truckers had to fire him in 2007.

“Some people get drunk and become kind of sweet,” the Truckers’ Patterson Hood told the New York Times in 2013. “Jason wasn’t one of those people.”

Even with mostly well-received solo records and a relationship with fellow musician Amanda Shires, things got worse.

Isbell would choose the right direction at that crossroads, resulting in Southeastern, released 10 years ago today. 

The effects of Isbell’s downward spiral were noticeable and painful to those around him. In the recent HBO documentary Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed, viewers got a glimpse of him in those rock bottom days.


VIDEO: Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed Official Trailer 

At a private gig in Richmond, Virginia, Isbell was in rough shape at the start. It only got worse as he drank copious amounts of Jack Daniel’s onstage. The ongoing trainwreck draws the exact reaction you’d expect from an uncomfortable audience.

“It’s just something I’ve always tucked away, just in case he ever slipped,” Isbell’s manager Traci Thomas said in the doc.

Shires, Thomas and others staged an intervention, which worked. He emerged from rehab sober and ready to write.

It’s a lot easier to start the day in the right headspace to create when you don’t wake up some place with no idea how you got there.

His newfound sobriety couldn’t help but make its way into the album, not just in how he got there. “I think there’s an openness you really have to accept if you’re going to make a change like that” Isbell told NPR in 2013. “You have to be all right with saying, ‘I have weaknesses.'”

He wasted no time in acknowledging the elephant in the room with “Cover Me Up”. The spare opening song is an unabashed love song to Shires, who he married two days after finishing recording. But this isn’t the flowers, the moon and June. This is about a woman who had put up with him at his worst and put her foot down, willing to stay at a point where leaving would have been understandable, but only if he was willing to change and follow through. And he knew it.

Isbell doesn’t spare himself, knowing how important both getting sober and Shires were to him (as they remain to him now) as he sings lines like, “So, girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room/’Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom/It’s cold in this house and I ain’t goin’ out to chop wood/So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good”.

Isbell’s raw vocals reflected a change in recording style from previous albums. Ryan Adams, in a sober period during his own ongoing substance battles (and years before MeToo revelations about him), was one of the people involved in the intervention and was set to produce the album, but backed out.

Dave Cobb stepped into the breach, right at the point where his own hardly-fallow career was about to get busy to the point where it was possible to wonder if Nashville had passed an ordinance requiring him to produce every album recorded there.

Jason Isbell Southeastern, Southeastern Records 2013

It’s not that Isbell’s first three albums had Rumours-like gestation periods, but there was a tendency to save a lot of vocals, including fixing, for the end. Cobb got him to sing live with the band more often, in order to get a truer sound. It proved to be a good call in an album with so much emotional material.

Isbell also addressed the topic in far less spare fashion with the raucous rocker “Super 8”, with its chorus hook of “I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 hotel” and verse references to angry brawls, rails of coke, upchucking into toilets and rehydrating with Pedialyte.

“Traveling Alone”, featuring Shires on fiddle and backing vocals, movingly lives in that headspace of knowing being at that crossroads (perhaps even crossing paths with Craig Finn’s Ybor City characters), so fucked up that you can’t even stand, knowing the direction you have to go.

Isbell’s knack for lyrical detail has brought his song’s characters to life, be they real (his father in “Outfit”) or composites, as on Southeastern.

“Elephant”, the album’s biggest gut punch (and not its only one), comes from a bar Isbell used to hang out in his  younger days,when he was dating a bartender there.

He told American Songwriter that the woman told him, “You know, these people aren’t gonna be around forever. You’re gonna get connected to these old drunks, and they’re just gonna vanish. Every few months, another one’s gonna be gone.” Sure enough, some of those regulars started disappearing. Sadly and almost invariably, the cause was cancer.

Isbell details the story of two bar lifers, friends who might have been more in an alternate timeline. As the woman is dying over the weeks or months, he’s there for her however he can, drinking, talking, making sure she gets home. All the while, the lyrics are unflinching in their detail: Andy sweeping up the hair she’s losing from chemo off the floor, the coping mechanism of cancer jokes, crying together while high on medicinal marijuana as she can’t sing anymore because of the disease’s ravages. 

It’s all the more devastating for its matter-of-fact lack of sentimentality as Andy, doing the best he can muster, realizes “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity.”

“Yvette” is a semi-sequel to “Daisy Mae”, off 2011’s Here We Rest. Over time, Isbell realized how many people he knew who’d been affected, directly or indirectly, by child sexual abuse. That fueled both songs. If the acoustic “Daisy Mae” is about trying to offer comfort in the worst of circumstances, the only thing “Yvette” has to offer is revenge, a sacrifice for safety because of its younger protagonist. Here, a student recognizes the warning signs in a friend. Upon seeing those signs confirmed, he plans to take action in the only way he feels he can, readying a gun while repeating in the choruses that he might not be a man, her abusive father never will be.


VIDEO: Jason Isbell “Traveling Alone”

The album was originally intended by Isbell and Cobb to be a mostly acoustic affair, but as recording went on, the decision was made to flesh things out more.

The more electric numbers hold their own. The wanderer’s tale “Stockholm” glides along, aided by Kim Richey’s wonderful harmonies. The flight-as-metaphor “Flying Over Water” gets a boost from its guitar solo.

Travel also figures into “New South Wales”, the most songwriterly song on Southeastern, showing off Isbell’s knack for a line (“And the piss they call tequila even Waylon wouldn’t drink/Well, I’d rather sip this Listerine I packed/But I swear, we’ve never seen a better place to sit and think/God bless the busted ship that brings us back”).

There’s an honesty to Isbell’s writing about what brought him to that point, whether he’s writing directly or through characters, types who know they need to do the right thing, but can’t get out of their own way. As he sings on “Different Days”, “My daddy told me, I believe he told me true/That the right thing’s always the hardest thing to do”.

The protagonist in “Songs That She Sang In The Shower” gets deservedly dumped, which he realizes as much as he knows that he’s going to be regretting it for a long time, perhaps as long as he’s on this Earth.

More devastating is “Live Oak”, where Isbell’s acapella vocals at the start set the mood and tension. The song has its roots in Isbell’s fears about how much getting sober would change him. “That one started as a worry that I had when I cleaned my life up, decide to be a grown-up, you know? I worried about what parts of me would go along with the bad parts, because it’s not cut and dried,” he told NPR in 2013.

Isbell put those doubts into a character, a soldier who’s looking to put the worst parts of his past behind him, but who sadly doesn’t find the hoped-for redemption, but ends up being the villain of his own making in a murder ballad.

Even the grace notes of closer “Relatively Easy” don’t exist in a Hallmark card world, but one where there’s death, violence and loneliness, with the final verse revealing that the song is from a prisoner’s POV, with the love beside him being a photo of her.

The road hasn’t been free of debris ever since, but Isbell’s had a much better go of it than that allegorical soldiers and prisoners.

Southeastern wasn’t his debut and Here We Rest has songs that feel like its prequel. But it still feels like a clear dividing line, as it’s the first in a line of consistent albums he’s made ever since, with his latest effort — Weathervanes — released this past Friday.

He’s continued the self-examination, looking at what kind of father he wants to be. He’s also looked even more at the world around him. Not only has sobriety suited him, so has his personal growth, even if it hasn’t always been easy. 

His sobriety passed the 10-year mark this spring, even though life itself hasn’t been all full of puppies and lollipops.

In the Running With Our Eyes Closed, the effects of those lost years still linger, in the trauma for others, particularly Shires. It’s one thing to have events be a part of your relationship history. It’s another when they become such key parts of the music. Shires said in the documentary, “There’s a couple parts in ‘Cover Me Up’ I still don’t like to hear, but I listen to it anyway.”

There’s also ultimate acknowledgment that getting and staying sober isn’t the be-all and end-all. Dealing with underlying issues is another part of it. The things that one is self-medicating for don’t just magically disappear. 

There was a point during the recording of Reunions in 2019 where, if the two weren’t at the precipice of divorce, they could see it from there, with Shires leaving the house for 10 days at one point.

“It was just a war in the studio,” she told CBS Mornings last year. “It was a war he was having with himself and with me. Suddenly, within our own house, he lived in his own invisible house and there was no windows and no doors. You couldn’t even get to him. Like he was there, but he was just impenetrable.”

Isbell opened a door to that invisible house and it’s clear things are better these days for both of them.

Shires, it should be noted, is much more than a member of Isbell’s band and his most trusted musical sounding board. She’s a damn fine artist herself, releasing a series of quality solo albums. Her most recent, 2018’s To The Sunset and 2022’s Take It Like a Man, are particularly recommended.

There’s also the supergroup she started the ball rolling with, The Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.


Isbell’s also remained one of the best musicians of Twitter: smart, funny, honest and somehow able to still run across people complaining that he’s “woke”, showing that they’ve paid as much attention to his music and public statements as they have Tom Morello’s, which is to say zero.

Looking back, it’s hard not to feel as if Isbell was always been heading in this direction creatively. His Drive-By Truckers material showed how strong he could be, even in a period he doesn’t remember much of. His earlier solo work had its moments (thinking of the mournful “Dress Blues” or the intimate wit of “Codeine”).

Southeastern resonates with a clarity undimmed over the last 10 years. It remains where he put it all together for the first time — an honest, poignant and emotional testimony to the reality that taking the road to sobriety was the absolute right move for him as a person and an artist.


Kara Tucker
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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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