As a white male who writes about sports for a living, it is required by law that I listen to Jason Isbell. It’s a bizarre edict, I know, but it’s true. Look it up.
Two years ago, Isbell released Southeastern, a collection of introspective songs about the songwriter’s tangles with substance abuse, love and loss and all that other hard life shit. The result was a critically acclaimed album and a resurgent career — Isbell had written a deeply confessional work that sounded good, sold well and, yes, became a mainstay on the playlists of sportswriters across America.
At the time, Isbell was not necessarily a newcomer to this specific genre; in his early days, he was a trusted member of Drive-By Truckers, a young musical savant who wrote the song “Outfit”, a fantastic southern rock track about fathers, sons and the slow, painful emasculation of work. But Southeastern was something different, a master work on storytelling and blue-collar themes, thrusting Isbell into the space generally reserved for BRUCE!, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.
Jason Isbell is Sportswriter Music.
I am not sure why white, 30-something sportswriters are so attracted to Isbell’s music, just as I’m not sure why every white, middle-aged portswriter loves BRUCE! I mean, sure, I have some theories. But it remains a curious phenomenon, in part because the answer seems obvious, in part because I think it says something about the way sportswriters see themselves.