Song Review – Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free”

Photo: David McClister
Photo: David McClister

With the passing of the Homestead Act and the dawning of America’s agrarian identity, the heartland was opened up for settlement to a host of earnest and hungry dreamers looking to make a legacy for themselves and their families by carving out pieces of humble land and sewing their love into the earth through sweat and toil. For years family trees branched out in sprouts of prosperity as strong crops made deep roots in farmland handed down from father to son, and son to grandson. Meanwhile at crossroads, and in the shadows of grain elevators, little shops were opened and small towns sprung to life where a sense of idyllic community was allowed to thrive as the train whistle announced the arrival of industrial goods that made life a little easier, and the departure of the people’s hard-earned agricultural efforts to market on one of the coasts.

So many promises were made, and so many dreams were wrought in that hardscrabble earth as it gave way to plow and tractor. And then the rain suddenly ceased. And then it ceased for another year, and then another. And then the dust blew, and putting people and crops where they probably didn’t belong in the first place brought economic calamity of grand proportions. Then when the war came and went, automation made the family farm obsolete, inefficient, and unnecessary. Communities built upon many generations of love and family and friendships were ravaged due to migrations of economic necessity. But a few hearty souls still held on, because they had nowhere else to go since they had no perspective of the world beyond the county line. Try telling someone whose mother and father were buried 200 yards from where they were born, and who was baptized in the same church their grandparents were married in that they should move to find better luck. Their ancestors were the ones that bore that burden, and it’s their job to hold on so all of those efforts don’t go forgotten and get plowed under by progress.

It’s a tale of two worlds, and two perspectives. In the epicenters of American prosperity, opulence makes everyday trifles feel like tragedy. The adolescent gestation period stretches into the late 20’s, and excess leads to indecision, neurosis, and self-imposed hardship. The question is not about if there will be work, but what work one may choose that will be the most rewarding.

While in the crumbling ruins of America’s agrarian landscape, men and women move like ghosts as they watch the legacies of their forebearers and the communities that fostered their formative memories fall into states of irreconcilable disrepair in hectares of forgotten space. It’s a world where it was once undignified to ask another man for work, and even more undignified to have no work at all. It’s a world where today, the hardship of their ancestors and neighbors make them fancy themselves just lucky to be able to scrape by with enough hard manual labor to try and hold on to parcels of land now valued in pennies, thanking God for any work at all. It’s the thankfulness that comes from knowing first hand of the many who are not so blessed, and deal not just with pain of having to do with less, but the loss of dignity of not being able to provide for one’s self, and one’s family.

This was the important and reminding endowment of perspective that I felt fortunate to have received from Jason Isbell’s song “Something More Than Free.” And to be able to communicate so much through a simple, sparing use of words and a sense of character, is a testament to his songwriting.

Two guns up.

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“Something More Than Free” is the title track to Jason Isbell’s latest record to be released on July 17th. The album is available for pre-order.

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