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2023 Albums Thing 172 - Jason Isbell “Sirens Of the Ditch”

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It’s time to settle in for a lot of albums by a single artist, ya ready ? We’ve met Jason Isbell before, do you remember ? Well for those that don’t, for 3 glorious albums Jason Isbell was a member of the Drive-By Truckers. After joining in 2001, to help tour the album “Southern Rock Opera”, 6 years later on April 5, 2007 Isbell announced that he was no longer a Trucker. Just 3 months after that on July 10, 2007 “Sirens Of the Ditch” was released.

I’d particularly liked the songs Isbell had written and recorded with the Truckers so when I heard about a solo album I was really excited to hear what he’d done. Strangely, as he’d just left the band, 4 Truckers play on this album, singer/guitarist Patterson Hood, drummer Brad Morgan, Pedal steel player John Neff and bass player Shonna Tucker (although she and Isbell were, just about, still married at the time). They are joined by Muscle Shoals Swampers (the Swampers were the studio musicians connected to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL) David Hood (Patterson’s Dad on bass) and legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham.

On first hearing I was a little disappointed. His songs for the Truckers had always been so good, and some of these felt a little lacking. Then I got to thinking, the Truckers also had 2 other very good writers so the songs that Isbell got on to their records would have been his very best, maybe these were some of those that didn’t make it. Is there anything on here that would have made it to a Truckers record was what I was thinking at the time.

Well yes there is actually, but not a lot. It’s a much Bluesier/rockier sounding record than the Truckers made. Isbell is after all a very, very good guitar player as well as songwriter so he was, perhaps, putting some of that out there. The Stones-ish “Brand New Kind Of Actress” starts it up with a tougher, rockier style than we’ve heard from him previously. “Down In A Hole” has a more acoustic Blues feel to it. “Try” follows that and is almost an amalgam of its two predecessors, it has “…Actress” grumbling guitars but “…Hole”’s tempo.

There is then a 3 song run, being the last 2 on Side 1 and the first on Side 2, that are the best of “Sirens Of The Ditch”. “Chicago Promenade” is a beautiful, stately song based around a simple piano part and when Isbell hits the bit that isn’t the verse (I hesitate to call it a chorus as it only happens once) the melody lifts the entire song, you want more of it. It’s simple but effective and Isbell has said the song is about the death of his grandfather.

Next is “Dress Blues”, my very favourite song here, it was released as a single by both Isbell and covered by the Zac Brown Band and current Country wunderkind Zach Bryan. It tells the story of the death of Corporal Matthew Conley, a US Marine from Isbell's hometown who was killed by an IED in Iraq at the age of 21. It tells of his life and a future that won’t now happen and the scenes in his hometown as it prepares for his funeral (“There’s red, white and blue in the rafters, There’s silent old men from the Corps”). Each chorus ends with the lines

But you never planned on the bombs in the sand, Or sleeping in your dress blues

Dress Blues being the ceremonial uniforms of US Marines in which they are also buried. This would definitely have made it onto a Truckers album.

After all that death “Grown” is a blessed relief, a great song but stylistically I don’t think the Truckers would have gone there. What we have here is probably the first example of what Jason Isbell will grow into. It’s a coming of age song, a boy becoming a man thing. 

There is more to this record but nothing that really reaches the heights that those 3 do. “Hurricanes And Handgrenades” returns us to that Bluesy feel with some extra added Gospelness about it, “In A Razor Town” is an intricate acoustic thing and “Shotgun Wedding” is another that might well have made it to a Truckers record at a push. 

I’m a massive Jason Isbell fan. I think he’s one of THE great American songwriters working today, he has a way with melody and is a superb storytelling lyricist. He will make better records than this and his progression has been great to follow in real time, but this wasn’t as lacking a start as I thought it was at the time.

Dress Blues - https://youtu.be/SArC1H-CerU

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