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Jason Isbell writes the best drivin’ music

“Alabama Pines” just sorta works on you.

The Americana Music Honors & Awards Nominations Ceremony Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music Association

There’s something nearly sinister about crossing into Mississippi on the highway from states without. The brush changes. The sky changes. The pavement changes to blood red, the color of the state’s horrible, lovable soul. You’re in Mississippi now, full stop.

Jason Isbell ain’t from Mississippi, but he might as well should be. He hates the south and loves the south. That’s why his songwriting is so compelling. Like Faulkner.

Isbell’s “Alabama Pines” has little to do with Mississippi on its surface, but it applies to every Bible Belt state. Georgia? Sure. Florida? Why not. Mississippi? Oh yes.

If we pass through on a Sunday, better make a stop at Wayne's.
It's the only open liquor store north, and I can't stand the pain
of being by myself without a little help
on a Sunday afternoon.

How can you possibly sit with yourself on a Sunday afternoon without an alcoholic aid as an Ole Miss fan? And where the hell are you gonna buy liquor on a Sunday in Oxford? We’ll wait.

This is one of the great tragedies of the True Detective series. Alcohol will and does ruin you, but you can’t live without it. Booze is shot through hundreds of years of Ole Miss and Georgia and Florida and Auburn and Alabama and Kentucky history, and being oneself without a little help becomes untenable at times. After all, we’re constantly driving under these damn Alabama pines.

Fundamentally, this song is about movement, travel. Fundamentally, this song fears stagnation. There’s no one spot for our hero, because he’s too antsy to sit still.

I moved into this room, if you could call it that, a week ago.
I never do what I'm supposed to do.
I hardly even know my name anymore.
When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away.

But this song is also about a woman, as many southern rock orchestrals are. But it’s only kind of about a woman. She’s slightly out of focus here. She’s pushed to the side, because our hero can’t help but make the whole thing his.

I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline.
I tried 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.

It’s about a goodbye. It may or may not be that recent, but this song is about a goodbye. Goodbyes hurt, often, especially when they shoot you out into those Alabama pines. Goodbyes can be final, and they can’t be final. Goodbyes — especially in relationships, especially in Mississippi — are never really goodbyes. They’re merely “see you laters,” and that shit’s awful.

Unless you chase down those Alabama pines.

But this song is also fundamentally about stagnation. It’s about landing in a southern town — say, Oxford, Miss. — and never really being able to leave. It’s about movement and stagnation, that wrestling match we all deal with as Oxonians, as southern movers. Do you ever really leave Oxford?

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.
When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away.

Is Oxford a town? It’s more of a place. It’s a thing. To call Oxford merely a town diminishes what Oxford really is. It’s a lifestyle, of sorts. It hurts to be there. It’s fulfilling to be there. There’s the damn state flag, but there’s also Sweet Tea Records and Square Books.

But it’s also the site of William Faulkner’s grave. It’s a place where you’re supposed to never do what you’re supposed to do, because what the hell were you supposed to do in the first place? You don’t need a name here because everyone knows you always already. Hey, Jim.

When no one calls it out — Oxford, the name, the place, the word — the name vanishes away. Like ghosts in the air. But those pines won’t forget. Those pines were here all along.