The Curmudgeon: Is Songwriting Contagious?

Drive-By Truckers and the Turnpike Troubadours

Music Features Jason Isbell
The Curmudgeon: Is Songwriting Contagious?

Is songwriting contagious? If you hang around an accomplished songwriter long enough, will some of it rub off?

There’s some evidence that it does. Obviously, the circumstances have to be right. The mentor and the protégé have to spend enough time together, and the protégé has to already have potential that can be brought out. But when those factors are present, the results can be remarkable.

Perhaps the best example is the effect of Bob Dylan on Robbie Robertson. When the 24-year-old Dylan hired the Hawks in 1965 to be his first touring rock ’n’ roll band, Robertson was a 22-year-old hot-shot guitarist from Ontario who had written a handful of competent but not terribly ambitious songs for his former employer Ronnie Hawkins. After a world tour with Dylan and six months of working on The Basement Tapes at the Big Pink house in Woodstock, N.Y., Robertson had been transformed into someone who could write “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”

“Bob and I were suited for one another,” Robertson told Paste earlier this year, “because breaking rules felt comfortable to both of us. Even joining up with him was breaking rules. We didn’t know shit about folk music, and he didn’t know much about being in a rock band. But I could hear how the songs he was writing were connected to the films I was seeing by Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini.”

There are other examples. George Harrison was just a 14-year-old Carl Perkins fan when he auditioned for the 17-year-old John Lennon and the 15-year-old Paul McCartney to join their new group. Lennon and McCartney soon became two of the best songwriters of the 20th century, but Harrison was smart enough and determined enough to learn from their example and eventually write such classic Beatles songs as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.”

Bootsy Collins first emerged as a bass-playing prodigy with James Brown, but in 1972 the 21-year-old Collins became the 31-year-old George Clinton’s right-hand man in Parliament-Funkadelic. The bassist soon learned to write funk songs that were catchy and cartoonish in the best sense of the word. When the Byrds first formed in 1964, Gene Clark was the most capable songwriter of the quintet, but Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman were all hungry enough and talented enough to compete with Clark—and McGuinn eventually surpassed him.

When Jason Isbell was hired by the Drive-By Truckers to replace departing guitarist Rob Malone in 2001, the band already had two terrific songwriters in Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, 37 and 35 at the time. Isbell was only 22, but it soon became clear that he was more than just a gifted guitarist. He had a knack for songwriting, and in the sweaty wrestling ring where the Truckers grappled with Southern-rock and the mythic South, Isbell’s skills grew by leaps and bounds. Isbell was asked to leave the band in 2007, after his drinking had gotten out of hand, but the influence of his songwriting apprenticeship has been obvious in everything he’s done since.

During his tenure with the Truckers, Isbell would contribute two or three terrific songs to each album. That pattern continued on his solo albums, only now the other songs were filler rather than terrific songs from Hood and Cooley. It was only when Isbell famously sobered up in 2012 that he was able to produce a full album of superb songs. The result was two masterpiece albums (2013’s Southeastern and 2017’s The Nashville Sound) and two better-than-good-but-not-great albums (2015’s Something More Than Free and this year’s Reunions).

For better and for worse, Isbell has fallen under the sway of Mark Knopfler on this new project. Songs such as “Overseas,” “Running with Our Eyes Closed,” “River” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” all feature intros, fills and/or solos that echo those familiar Dire Straits guitar parts with their sustained notes, creamy tone and fluid feel. This Celtic-soaked lyricism is not a bad example to follow, even it pulls Isbell from his roots and into someone else’s territory.

Unfortunately, Isbell seems to be pulling less from Knopfler’s scrappy, J.J. Cale-inspired early career and more from Knopfler’s later career, when the lanky Scot tried to take shortcuts to profundity with strings, keyboards, reverb and vague, portentous metaphors. All these flaws can be heard on Reunions. ”What’ve I Done To Help,” despite its hooky chorus, is filled with smothering synth strings and bland, Knopfler-like platitudes such as “I’ve made mistakes I can’t erase” and “I cut anchor and drifted out to sea.” Similar short-armed stabs at wisdom can be heard on “River,” “Overseas,” “Running with Our Eyes Closed” and “St. Peter’s Autograph.”

But Isbell is simply too talented for his better instincts, honed during his Trucker years, not to take over on some songs. A pair of powerful songs, “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier,” are bracing reminders that overcoming one’s weaknesses and failures is not a battle that once won can allow you to retire from the field. It’s a battle you must fight again and again. The first song is about the temptations of celebrity (“You can back and snap like a dog at the man who just tuned your guitar”), while the second concerns the temptations of alcoholism (“Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking”). For these, Isbell retreats from the hazy Scottish twilight and wrestles with his demons under a focused Alabama sun, hot and unforgiving.

Even better are the three songs about childhood in the South. The first, “Dreamsicle,” is about the dawning of puberty. One moment it’s “poison oak and poison ivy, dirty jokes that blew right by me,” and the next moment “mama’s curling up beside me” while daddy’s “in a hotel all alone.” Here the images are sharp, and the music is understated as befits a somewhat wistful, somewhat regretful look back. “Only Children” does something similar for the high school years. And “Letting You Go” is about a similar childhood, only this time the narrator is the father watching his daughter with equal helpings of hope and trepidation.

In January, Isbell’s erstwhile colleagues in the Truckers released one of the best albums of 2020, The Unraveling, and now the quintet is back with another impressive disc. The New OK includes the earlier album’s unreleased title track, five more leftovers from prior sessions, two newly written songs and a cover of the Ramones’ closest thing to a Southern-rock number, “The KKK Took My Baby Away.”

Hood grew up Muscle Shoals, Ala., and formed the Drive-By Truckers in Athens, Georgia, in 1996, but he has lived in Portland, Oregon, since 2015. But America’s racial battlelines seem to follow him wherever he goes, and he stood witness as the Black Lives Matter protests tangled with Ayatollah Trump’s revolutionary guard in Hood’s new hometown this summer. And as the best topical songwriter of our time, he of course turned the event into a song: “The New OK.”

With the band grinding away at the chords like Crazy Horse in grunge mode, Hood delivers this musical journalism: “We got mommies and vets taking fire from the cops on the beat and the occupiers. It’s 11:29, and the shit comes down. Shooting volleys from behind the fence, smashing medics and the once free press. It gets bloody and it’s a mess, goons with guns coming out to play. It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA. It’s the new OK.” The title line signals that the song is not so much a protest against evil (which will always be with us) as a protest against accepting evil as the “new normal.”

For all his Southern roots, Hood was a huge Clash fan as a teenager, and that source of his socially conscious songwriting is acknowledged in the reggae-punk music underneath “The Perilous Night,” his reportage on the alt-right violence in Charlottesville. Cooley’s only song on the new album, the deceptively laid-back “Sarah’s Flame,” also references Charlottesville in its evocation of Sarah Palin as a high-school senior. As such, she memorizes “every bumper sticker on the back of every pickup with a rebel flag” and grows up to provide the “flame” for the tiki-torch-carrying neo-Nazis.

In the liner notes, Hood acknowledges that the song “Tough To Let It Go” came to him in a dream. “When I dreamt it,” Hood writes, “Jason Isbell was singing it. I literally checked with him to make sure that I hadn’t actually stolen it from him. He said I hadn’t, but it was his favorite of my songs from the Memphis sessions.” In the best situations, the dialogue between mentor and protégé never stops.

Like Isbell’s “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier,” Hood’s “Tough To Let Go” and the new, pandemic-inspired “Watching the Orange Clouds” are more personal songs, confessions of self-doubt, even helplessness. In the latter song, the narrator is standing on the balcony of his home watching the orange light from a building burning in downtown Portland as his kids sleep obliviously in the next room. “Sure wish I could get some sleep,” he exhaustedly laments over rock-noir guitars and piano, “just didn’t realize this bottom is so damned deep.”

The contagion of good songwriting can happen even if the participants are not that well known. The Turnpike Troubadours have been one of the best Americana bands of the past decade, even if their reputation has lagged behind that of lesser groups such as the Lumineers, Dawes and Shovels & Rope. The Troubadours’ achievement starts with Evan Felker’s songs, which connect gritty details of Oklahoma life to grander themes of the American paradox in the 21st century. Many writers can do one or the other, but few can do both specifics and universality. Felker is one of the few, and his muscular, flexible band transform them into country-rock that earns the comparisons to Steve Earle & the Dukes or Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.

Kyle Nix, the fiddler for the Troubadours, has never had a songwriting credit on the band’s albums, but he was obviously paying close attention to what Felker was up to. For Nix’s debut solo album, Lightning on the Mountain and Other Short Stories, is an astonishing collection of riveting tales, each told by a conflicted narrator rooted in specific geography and facing a dangerous situation.

It might be an Oklahoma kid tempted to join the army as his dad and granddad did. It might be a bootlegger in the North Carolina hill threatened by the local mob. It might be a young woman in rural Michigan grabbing a shotgun to ward off an abusive boyfriend. It might be a young man down by the river, trying to resist his best friend’s flirting wife. Whatever world he creates, Nix draws us into it, thanks to the vivid details. A first night of love is full of “tangled satin sheets, discovering tattoos”; a hot-rodder and his girl “shatter through the front glass”; a beating leaves “the tile spotted and smeared red.”

Although Nix is joined in the studio by his four non-Felker bandmates from the Troubadours, the music is crucially different from those same musicians playing Felker’s songs. Because Nix grew up playing bluegrass fiddle, that sound is out in front of the brawny rock ’n’ roll band, giving the arrangements more of a string-band flavor than a honky-tonk feel. This has the effect of making these songs of lust, violence and recovery sound even older than most Americana—or most country music, for that matter.

Like dozens before them and dozens to follow, Isbell and Nix have proven that one of the best ways to become a better songwriter is to get up close to a really good one and learn as much as you can. You have to be humble enough to soak up the lessons and smart enough to translate that knowledge into new material. But if you are, special things can happen.

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