Luke Bryan Versus Jason Isbell: The Country Wars
Ever since Hillbilly morphed into country and beyond, country has been been the suburban bastard child of jazz and blues, and every time it tried to pop out of its redneck woods, Owen Bradley’s countrypolitan for instance, purists howled. It was true of me in the 1980s where even the neotradiionalist seemed like a heavily diluted copy of the originals.
In 2015 we are in the same old space. Country music has split in two: there is country pop using EDM and hip hop production values and the traditionalists who now call themselves Americana.
Consider it Luke Bryan versus Jason Isbell, two immensely smug performers of dissimilar abilities. You may, as I do, have your problems with Isbell’s new album but he is immensely superior to Bryan. Bryan is a lyrically vapid, Red Stater who knows how to make pop songs for the masses: melodically iffy bro country (in Jody Rosen’s brilliant phrase) -all barefoot girls in daisy dukes, and rifles in the pick up trucks.
God knows hedonism is an end in itself, and Luke’s Spring Break EPs and the 2013 album Spring Break…. Here To Party, might make sense at 1am for college kids blowing it off in Fort Lauderdale,though he said everything he had to say on “If You AIn’t Here To Party”. By this year’s five song EP, Spring Break… Checkin’ It Out, the 39 year old Luke maybe kinda considered it was time to grow upish, the last song on the EP finds Luke having a Spring Break(down)… “it’s been a real good run…” he claims and it is hard to deny it.
This is all somewhat shallow stuff, as is the new album Kill The Lights. And really, when he isn’t singing or performing, or, well, breathing, he seems like a pretty cool cat. The Nashville guy began his career as a country songwriter but broke free in 2007 and has been a constant on the country charts ever since. Married to his High School sweetheart, he has two sons and adopted his nephew after both his sister and his brother-in-law died. Luke has his name on half the tracks on Kill The Lights and the rest is filled with the likes of Dallas Davidson -who has written for every major player including Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum. It may be the real deal productionwise but it sure sounds like standard issue over processed drums and instrumentation by zipfile. It doesn’t have an original thought in its pretty little head.
If Luke is an adult who acts like a child, Jason Isbell has taken an extended childhood, he is 36 years old, and grown up. One of country music’s finest songwriters, would it kill him to crack a smile? And, yes I did say country because what the hell does Americana mean here? The extended Southern bad boy who drank and drugged his way out of a band and a marriage and then, went to rehab (though he claimed to be not in that bad a state) and released his masterpiece Southeastern in 2013, is the anti-Luke. Following Southeastern , Isbell toured relentless for two years straight (I saw him three times -four if you include performing in his wife Amanda Shires band). Straddling country and folk and rock, Jason writes middlebrow, Southern workingmen’s odes,it would be Chekovian but Chekhov would never be so heavy handed: Chekhov’s point was desperation is quiet and doesn’t end when the story ends, Isbell has a moral to make. His most telling line is “no one dies with dignity” -a risible sentiment on the career changing tale of cancer and death (and sex) “Elephant”.
This year’s Isbell release Something More Than Free, is the one where he broke pop, not chartwise but in the national consciousness and it didn’t have an “Elephant” in the room. However, “24 Frames” is one of the best songs of the year and “Children Of Children” (about his Mom, who was 17 years old when she had him) is almost as good and the Bruce Bro “Speed Trap Town” misses by thatmuch. The rest of the album is spottier if stable and all of it is real, win or lose Isbell is his own man and writes his own songs. While that doesn’t necessarily matter, it does when you are comparing him to Bryan. Isbell has a seriousness (an overseriousness) sense of self and South -he is on a crusade to have important if low key lives taken seriously, Luke embraces the Bro of the South -his idea of tragedy is breaking up with a girl (though in real life, that is obviously not true). Luke says to the world, love it or leave it, Jason says everyone has their reasons, therein lies the tragedy.
Perhaps, as Popdose writer Ken Shane noted, it needs to be seen live and I haven’t seen the current tour yet for Jason or Luke Bryan ever.
One is a serious man disguised as a Frat Boy and the other is a serious man disguised as a workingclass hero. Isbell is great but not great enough, Luke just moved 390,000 Album Equivalent Units, as if he had learnt something that Jason Aldean failed to, from Ludacris. Something about where pop meets hip hop meets country.
I wish we could just forget the lesson, myself.
Kill The Lights – Luke Bryan – C-
Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell – B+