#28. Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free

There’s a bit of a schism going on in contemporary country music. On one side, you’ve got countrified pop artists like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line selling out arenas and converting throngs of teens to the country cause. And then there are traditional country troubadours like Jason Isbell, who find themselves on the opposite side of a slowly widening rift between the classic and the commercial.

Something More Than Free stands in stark contrast to the overly masculine stories on country pop radio about drinking cold beers in your pickup truck next to a beauty with “blue jeans painted on tight.” Its songs don’t bother with those clichés, nor do they engage in soapbox platitudes about what it really means to be country. Instead, Isbell’s fifth album is all about substance. Its songs are sepia-toned polaroids of blue-collar life in the American southeast.

Isbell’s characters aren’t attending hoedowns or speeding down dirt roads. Most of the time they’re too busy living from paycheck to paycheck to go looking for love at their local bar. And when they do find love, they don’t always live happily ever after. He addresses divorce and the disconnect between the perception and reality of marriage on “24 Frames,” singing “you thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” He acknowledges the hard truths of life, like how sometimes the best thing to do for a loved one is let them go “when the muse goes missing.”

On the title track, Isbell paints a picture of a workingman who’s too exhausted from chasing physical labor to question his purpose in life. “Something more than free” is the character’s optimistic spin on what most would refer to as dirt-cheap wages. “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church,” he sings, “but I thank God for the work.” This is an album about the working class and it’s an album for the working class. It celebrates their resilience without sensationalizing their experience. Something More Than Free reminds us why the genre has traditionally used the American south to calibrate the nation’s moral compass, and more importantly, it reminds us what good old back-to-basics country music sounds like.