One of the most prolific songwriters alive today, Jason Isbell writes raw, emotionally charged country music that is a refreshing change of pace from some of the cookie cutter artists of today. The best Jason Isbell songs tug on your heartstrings in a way that only country music can do, with songs about his mother’s battle with cancer, his struggles with alcohol addiction, terrible breakups, and so much more. This list of Jason Isbell songs is almost exclusively from his solo career, where he really shined on his own and became a national treasure in the country community.
Our 10 favorite Jason Isbell songs perfectly illustrate why he’s being spoken in the same breath as artists like Dylan or Springsteen- he is truly a one of a kind songwriter with a voice to match. Let us know what you think the best Jason Isbell song is in the comments! You probably won’t be surprised that we included him on our list of country songs about hurting.
1. Traveling Alone
Perhaps inspired from Jason Isbell’s time spent on the road, “Traveling Alone” is a beautiful song about the loneliness of living like a man in a suitcase- “And I know every town worth passing through / But what good does knowing do / With no one to show it to?” The song was featured on his 2013 album Southeastern.
2. Cover Me Up
“Cover Me Up” is one of those songs that prove Jason Isbell is an another level when compared to other mainstream country stars of today. His phrasing is perfect and he sings the song so beautifully that you wonder why more people aren’t obsessed with this guy- “It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood / So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good.”
In all the years I’ve been listening to country, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a song that was as emotionally charged as Jason Isbell’s “Elehpant.” If you’ve ever lost someone to cancer, “Elephant” will knock the wind out of you in a big way. In the song, Isbell is describing time spent with his mother while she was fighting cancer, and it’s painful to listen to from beginning to end- “We drink these drinks and laugh out loud / Bitch about the weekend crowd / And try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
4. 24 Frames
If “Elephant” is about the time spent while Isbell’s mother was battling cancer, “24 Frames” is the memory after her death. “24 Frames” won a Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song, and it was well deserved- Isbell once again spills his guts out on a song that really makes you loathe some of the cookie cutter country artists who are selling out arenas.
5. Something More Than Free
Songs like “Something More Than Free” are why Jason Isbell is being spoken in the same breath as artists like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen in 2016. This working class anthem from his 2015 album of the same name is a bit depressing, as the narrator describes being a blue collar worker in America- “And I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts / I’m just lucky to have the work / Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church / But I thank God for the work.”
6. If It Takes a Lifetime
Another great song from his most recent album, “If It Takes a Lifetime” is a great country song about a man learning to find himself as he journeys through life- “I’m learning how to be alone, fall asleep with the TV on / And I fight the urge to live inside my telephone / I keep my spirits high, find happiness by and by / If it takes a lifetime.”
7. Alabama Pines
Performed with The 400 Unit for the album Here We Rest, “Alabama Pines” is a smooth song that is really good to listen to while you’re driving home. The narrator yearns for his home in the song, describing the drive back to his home town- “You can’t drive through Talladega on a weekend in October / Head up north to Jacksonville. Cut around and over / Watch your speed in Boiling Springs / They ain’t got a thing to do, they’ll get you every time.”
8. Speed Trap Down
Jason Isbell describes growing up in a small town in a painfully accurate way on “Speed Trap Town- “Well it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name / These 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.”
9. Live Oak
It’s not a secret that Isbell has struggled with alcohol problems over the years, and he makes that painfully clear in “Live Oak.” as he wonders to himself if he’ll be the same person after giving up booze- “There’s a man who walks beside me / It is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him / and confuses him with me.”
10. Songs That She Sang in the Shower
From his 2013 album Southeastern, “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” is a great song about the end of a relationship. The song starts with the narrator getting punched in the eye- “And in the car, headed home / She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone / With a steak held to my eye / I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye / And another brief chapter without any answers blew bye.”by