Jason Isbell, “Alabama Pines”

Written by October 1st, 2012 at 6:00 am

Jason Isbell has always been a sharp chronicler of place. His music seeps with tradition and heritage, and if the protagonists in his songs are roamers and wanderers, home’s never far from their minds. When they’re threatening to lose their roots, like on Isbell’s 2003 masterpiece “Outfit,” the song that not only established him as an integral new member of the Drive-By Truckers but as a undeniable Southern songwriter, someone’s there to remind them to phone home.

In “Alabama Pines,” (named Song Of The Year at this year’s Americana Honors And Awards) the singer is another drifting soul. He’s moving from town to town, from room to room, but he’s thinking about something else. He’s dreaming of weekend drives through northeast Alabama on a sunny fall day, when there’s a hint of chill in the air. He can smell his home.

That may be true of most any of Isbell’s protagonists, but not until “Alabama Pines” has Isbell so explicitly placed that rootless desperation at the center of a narrative. The second verse in “Alabama Pines,” is where a vague yearning for home gets named, where place becomes geography. It’s also when the personal and specific, the precise contours and details of North Alabama, becomes a universal longing. It’s in that second verse, where the protagonist starts referencing roadmaps and giving directions, that cements “Alabama Pines” as one of Isbell’s finest to date. Who is he talking to, when the singer starts playing travel guide?

You can’t drive through Talladega on a weekend in October
Just head up north to Jacksonville
Cut around and oh, watch your speed in Boiling Springs,
They ain’t got a thing to do, they’ll get you every time

The answer, of course, is no one, or, more precisely, himself. “Alabama Pines” is the cry of a man holding on to the last of what he can rightly call his. Isbell’s protagonist is lost and out of touch. Things haven’t worked out: he’s unloved and unnamed, and the only thing convincing him that he exists, that he has a right to be in this world at all, is a roadmap in his mind.

It’s unclear, and perhaps unimportant, where the singer of “Alabama Pines” currently resides. “I’ve moved here in this town, if you could call it that, a year or two,” he sings towards the end of the song, as if to say that if he’s moved back to his hometown, or at least nearby, he’s having an awful hard time adjusting. In “Alabama Pines,” Home is so much more than purely physical space. Things don’t seem like they used to, back in the old neighborhood. “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about,” the singer complains. Things have changed; time is catching up on the singer. He needs a breath of fresh air.

“Alabama Pines” isn’t just another prime example of the importance the Alabama songwriter places on place, family and surroundings; it’s a crystallization of all the things Isbell “gives a damn about” as a songwriter.

“Alabama Pines”

Well I moved into this room if you could call it that a week ago
I never do what I’m supposed to do. Hardly even know my name anymore
When no one calls it out it kind of vanishes away

I can’t get to sleep at night, the parking lot’s so loud and bright.
The AC hasn’t worked in 20 years, probably never made a single person cold
I can’t say the same for me. I’ve done it many times
Somebody take me home, through those Alabama pines

You can’t drive through Talladega on a weekend in October
Just head up north to Jacksonville. Cut around, and oh, boy watch your speed in Boiling Springs,
They ain’t got a thing to do, they’ll get you every time
Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines
Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines

If you pass through on a Sunday, better make a stop at Wayne’s
It’s the only open liquor store north, I can’t stand the pain
of being by myself, without a little help, on a Sunday afternoon.
And I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline
And I’m trying to be some ancient kind of man, one that’s never seen the beauty in the world
But I tried to chase it down, tried to make the whole thing mine
Somebody take me home, through those Alabama pines
Somebody take me home, through those Alabama pines

I’ve been stuck here in this town, if you could call it that, a year or two
I never do what I’m supposed to do. I don’t even need a name anymore,
No one calls it out, kind of vanishes away
No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about
The liberties that we can’t do without seem to disappear like ghost in the air
We don’t even care, until it vanishes away.

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