It’s early July, not quite one year ago, but it feels now like another lifetime. I am driving through Alabama’s Sipsey Wilderness in a car with 250,000 miles on the odometer and no hubcaps on the tires. The car needs a new front axle. I am putting 150 precarious miles between me and my wife and our one-year-old son. Because she knows me better than I know myself, J– has sent me away. I am in “a mood.” I’m trying to find a novel I can’t find my way into (hence the mood). Something about fathers and sons and music. Also wars, real ones and the ones inside our minds. For days, weeks, the cursor’s just been blinking at me.
So here I am, driving in the midsummer, Deep-South heat, away from my family, hurtling through one of the more remotely rural sections of Alabama. It is what you might expect: red clay, farmland, double-wides, periodically a Confederate flag. Not many signs of life. One man’s notion of an urgently needed writer’s retreat.
I have lived in Alabama since 1996, coincidentally the same year Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley formed the Drive-by Truckers in Athens, Georgia. They’d met nearly a decade before they formed the band, in the Shoals region of northwest Alabama where they were both born and raised. But they had to leave home to find an audience, to find themselves.
Patterson Hood’s father is David Hood, an accomplished session musician who cut his teeth at Rick Hall’s F.A.M.E. Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals. He later made a good living for himself and his family, playing bass for the likes of Aretha, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, The Staples Singers, The Stones, Dylan, Traffic. Like any good teenager, his son Pat branched out and found his own music. The Replacements’ Tim convinced him to do what his father told him not to do — son, you don’t have the voice, the talent, the drive to be a professional musician. Hood the younger hit the road and made a vocation out of music anyway.
The Shoals is where I’m headed on this junket. I’m listening to music on the way. Of course. What I think of when I think of Americana: shape-note singing, Uncle Tupelo, the Minutemen, Husker Du, but mostly Hood and Cooley and their Truckers. I am trying to hear something in them that will help me find what I am looking for. I’m still not hearing it.
Decoration Day comes on — the album that followed the album that got the Truckers an audience. I drive distractedly to skip ahead to “Outfit” and the title track itself, Jason Isbells’s first two original recorded songs. They’re a little mimetic (he’s first and foremost a Truckers fan himself, and he’s new to the band on this record), but they’re also inspired, unique, Other. Both songs are about fathers and sons, wars of the internal and external varieties. Both are reverent and beautiful in ways not many Truckers songs are. Both were written at barely twenty years of age, in his first few weeks with the band he would eventually leave, to find himself.
It turns out he’s who I want to listen to, who I need to hear, maybe somehow emulate. I switch gears, scroll down, find his solo (and sober) album Southeastern and listen to it for the very first time, crossing the Tennessee River into Florence, Alabama, where I will make my makeshift writer’s retreat for the next few days.
The simple opening chords of the first track, “Cover Me Up” — and then still more Isbell’s plaintive voicing of lyrics that are equal parts confession, promise, and prayerful plea to a loving partner who helps him navigate a new kind of life, a new kind of passion — it all brings something home for me. I don’t want to write a novel about made-up fathers and sons, their wars and their uneasily shared musics. I want to write the truth. I want to say what I mean, straight up, about the life I now live, the lucky life I share with my wife and son, the somewhat sadder life I lived before they found me and saved me. And, yes, my (sad) music will find its way in there too. It can’t not.
For the next three days, as I tool around Florence and find places to scribble in my notebook, I end up listening to Southeastern on repeat — an unexpected, heretofore unknown (to me), but now-beloved soundtrack to what I strongly suspect is a watershed moment in my creative life. In my life-life.
I head back to my wife and son. I am on a straighter course. I skirt the wilderness. I haven’t yet written a single publishable word, but these words — cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good — this music makes the journey back to where I belong less precarious than the journey away from it. I am sure-footed, more alive, having heard this new music. I am not lost anymore. I’m hearing just exactly what I’m meant to hear, and at last — long last — I’m headed right where I need to go.