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Jason Isbell, who is your mother and father, has important advice for you

Don’t act like your family’s a joke.

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

We’ve been here before, if only in adjacent space. Jason Isbell is a southern musician — though not a Mississippian, though an Ole Miss favorite — and this particular sports blog originates in the South, and Isbell’s sound just sort of attends everything we read, write, and talk about. Our editorial newsroom is purely comprised of Isbell lyrics — nothing related to Ole Miss sports content. Whatsoever. It’s true.

Isbell hates the South.

Isbell loves the South.

Isbell writes best about the South because he hates and loves it. He definitely hates it, though... and loves it.

A lot like Faulkner. God, Faulkner hated the South, but he absolutely lived there and went to Ole Miss football games always, anyway. They — Oxford, Ole Miss — let him hang around because he loved Rebel football, but man he despised Rebel paraphernalia, especially the damn confederate flag and Colonel Reb. But he could have moved anywhere, with the entire country of France worshiping his every word. But just like so many of us, he recognized the duality of the region, drawing his very creative voice from its unique eccentricities. Those confederate eyesores didn’t disappear, though. Not while he was alive, anyway.

And that horror of celebration under a banner of human slavery — as Faulkner knew better than we — is one of the sites where the southern gothic was founded: at the intersection of fascination and revulsion. LIKE and UNLIKE.

Horror, violence overcoming tolerance, humanity — that was Faulkner’s great fear. He died just four months before the race riots of James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss, and there’s a real tragic irony in that fact. Don’t ever forget that.

Faulkner, after all — as legend has it — got shit-faced one night on the top of Peabody Hall and spouted off the HOTTY TODDY cheer, among many other colorful things campus tours won’t mention these days.

For what if the HOTTY TODDY cheer is entirely sarcastic? What if Faulkner was making fun of Ole Miss all the long? What if it’s just plain stupid for stupid’s sake? Sorry, Oxford, Faulkner knew that you hated him... until he was famous and/or died.

You already hate Jason Isbell, too, because he knows you too well, like Faulkner. But you love him, too, because he knows you too well, like Faulkner. He feels the same way, in both directions. Here’s Isbell, knowing you:

You want to be old after forty two years
Keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears

This is ostensibly a father’s aphorism toward his ... daughter? ... son? It’s not altogether clear, and that’s what makes “Outfit” probably all the more compelling out of Isbell’s corpus. Either way, whoever you are: work and grow old, those are the facts of life, and it ain’t glamorous. It is in an Isbell song, after all. We’re not here to smile.

It’s not supposed to be uplifting, and that’s sort of why we’re approaching talking about Ole Miss football, if only in a ghostly sense. We’ll get there. Don’t worry.

“Outfit” wreaks and soaks into your bones because you have nothing else to do with it. It seeps like shitty Ole Miss football seasons into your very person. It sets up shop in your conversations, and ruins those conversations immediately. “Outfit” rips apart your daily thoughts about living up to your elders, while all the same endorsing whatever hellish life decisions you’ve made recently.

It makes you re-examine your current station and say, “hmmmmmm.”

“Outfit” begins with a significant, pointed Isbell inhale. An inhale. It’s instantaneous; you’ll miss it if you’re not listening. But Mississippi ain’t not listening. Mississippi heard the whole damn thing, five times over. Mississippi can hear a century of apprehension and hesitation in that infinitesimal inhale. Mississippi knows that hesitation, however planned, however recorded, needs be. Hesitation works, because it’s Mississippi. Mississippi knows how to wait. Mississippi listens for it, because Mississippi expects it.

It takes time in Mississippi, and especially so in Oxford. Especially so with Ole Miss football.

And I learned not to say much of nothing,
So figure you already know:
But in case you don’t or maybe forgot
I’ll let it out real nice and slow

Not to say much of nothing is to say quite a bit indeed, though. That inhale — however unbelievably fast — still means something, especially in Mississippi. But thanks for letting it out real nice and slow. That’s how we like things in Mississippi. This is dizzying.

Here, as a professional in your element, is how to disappoint your son or daughter, in perfect song form:

You want to grow up to paint houses like me
A trailer in my yard till you're twenty three
You want to be old after forty two years
Keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears

Did you know that “Outfit” hurts as a meditation on parenthood? You maybe did. Because this — parenting — hurts, in multiple ways. For Isbell, the disappointment of a father that his son or daughter wants to carry on this self-same profession. Painting houses. The disappointment of the songwriting song, that this kid grew up to paint only houses, that he or she achieved a trailer for a home, for better or worse. That the son, the daughter, may never match better. But that’s alright. But it’s also not alright.

It’s made all the more troublesome, because of our fathers’ professed grand lives before. And really, as Freud says, this is all due to the Father, capital F:

Well, I used to go out in a Mustang,
a 302 Mach One in green
Me and your Mama made you in the back
and I sold it to buy her a ring

This is the proudest moment of the song, far and away. Sex in the backseat of a Mustang 302 Mach One, green in color. Productive sex, for here you are. A Mustang traded for a wedding ring for a shotgun wedding. Car for ring for offspring. That is the flow here. How glamorous our house painter was, that he could bed your momma on the strength of a 302 Mach One in green. This is our southern gothic man, as inherited by genre, in stark, Isbell terms — which, when you kinda squint and shrug your shoulders, it sorta works. Maybe not all the way, though.

But this is Isbell. His father taught him this arcana:

Don't call what you're wearing an outfit, don't ever say your car is broke
Don't worry about losing your accent, a southern man tells better jokes
Have fun, stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister's birthday|
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away

And then Isbell bequeaths it to his own kin, word for word. Somewhere along the way he turns to his own son — it’s explicitly his son — to chastise him for carrying “a bucket of wealthy man’s paint.”

Truth of the matter is, this specific advice adheres to probably very few modern Ole Miss undergrads, though it should to more. In negative fashion, though, “Outfit” evinces a profoundly sad image a father giving advice to a fairly grownup kid:

Don’t worry ‘bout losing your accent
A southern man tells better jokes

So this is a song from a father to a son, but in my experience, the same holds true for southern women. Even more so. Full stop. Here, come meet my sister.

As Aeschines’ students asked him, “What’s the most important component of oratory?”


“And the second?”


“And the third?”


“Never has Ole Miss lost a party,” the common refrain runs when the Rebs are losing by three (or four?) scores to Dan Mullen in Oxford. It doesn’t matter, because we’re all out here in the Grove, listening to better jokes. Just don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit.