Here’s a good way for me to exit a conversation: “There’s no such thing as good country music.” That statement makes you look like a jackass whose knowledge of the genre begins and ends with Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” The alt-country/American genre is exploding thanks to visionaries like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Jason Isbell — all devoted to putting real heart into crafting rugged Americana music for confusing, tumultuous American times.
Last year was Sturgill Simpson’s year for sitting on the American songwriting throne, with A Sailor’s Guide To Earth being nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. Now Jason Isbell is stepping to the plate, this week releasing the first song on his new album, The Nashville Sound, out in June. It’s called “Cumberland Gap”, inspired by the blue collared coal mining grit of a mountainous Appalachian region between Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.
As a place, the Cumberland Gap is steeped in American roots music traditions. Woodie Guthrie recorded a generations-old coal mining song about it in the ’40s. Earl Scruggs And Lester Flatt gave a similar song the true bluegrass treatment years later. The Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues” captures the workingman struggle of “paying those union dues.” Old Crow Medicine Show’s ode to the place is all about working the river. Hell, “Wagon Wheel” directly calls the damn place out: “….he’s a headed west from the Cumberland Gap ….To Johnson City, Tennessee.”
And now Jason Isbell throw his hat into the storied Cumberland Gap songwriting mix. It’s about the struggle of working class life in rural America, invoking a specific image of four-stoplight towns with lyrics like “there’s nothing here but churches, bars and grocery stores.” And the refrain of “maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole” is a double-gut punch that resonants with a lot of America right now.
Anyway, it’s pretty great. And it’s proof that real country — the country music of Waylon, Willie, Johnny, Graham Parsons, etc. — is far from dead.