Grabbed By the Throat

I guess it would have been mid-2003 when I wandered into Manifest Discs in Charlotte (which might be the best record store in the South) and discovered the Drive-By Truckers. To this day I have no idea what sort of baked mental process led the sales associate from Little Feat to Wilco to DBT, but I’m grateful for it no matter how it came about. I wound up buying a copy of Southern Rock Opera and what was then their latest album, Decoration Day. Not long after I got word that DBT was going to be playing a show at the Visulite Theater and I got tickets for my best friend; as I recall, it cost $20 or $25 a head, and the show started at 8:30 p.m. We got treated to one of the most epic rock and roll shows I’ve ever seen; Marsh and I left at 1 or 2 a.m. and the Truckers were still playing. We got right at six hours of music for $50 total.

What struck me the first time I listened to Decoration Day was the singing and songwriting of the newest and youngest member of the band, Jason Isbell. With Isbell in the band, DBT went on one hell of a run, pumping out some of the best deep-fried southern-style rock and roll I’ve ever heard. Then, in an exit that was carefully stage managed, Isbell left the band in 2007. His marriage to the bass player was over, he was drinking so much that his dad was resigned to getting a phone call that his son had died on the road, and the band was done with him. He went solo and started his own band (the 400 Unit), and got sober a couple of years ago, and has gone on a hell of a tear himself; Southeastern (2013) and Something More than Free (2015) have gone a long way towards cementing him in the public consciousness as the best songwriter to come along in a very, very long time.

But the title track to Decoration Day was the first Isbell song that I heard; in it the songwriting skill that’s become so celebrated in the last few years was already on full display. “Decoration Day” was one of those tunes that grabs you by the throat and practically screams, “Listen to me! I have important things to say!” So here’s your dose of a young Isbell singing about his family’s involvement (Hollan Hill was his maternal great-uncle) in an Alabama feud.



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