Dress Blues

I should probably be working on the statistics homework I have to turn in on the first day of class, but I'm not. (Yes - I have to complete real homework before class even starts. This is not an encouraging sign of what I suspect is to come.)

Instead, I'll observe my final fleeting moments on "The Summer of Eric Gravy Train Extravaganza" by telling you about the best song to be released on record in a long time - "Dress Blues" by Jason Isbell from his debut album "Sirens of the Ditch".

(The album title comes from a great lyric from the song "Grown" - "Last night I heard the sirens' song and I followed it in the ditch".)

When I got back from China and reconnected with reality, I was shocked to learn that Jason Isbell had left the Drive-By Truckers to strike out on a solo career. (He actually made the move in April - not sure how I didn't catch the news then.) I was at once disappointed and excited - disappointed because DBT will never be the same and excited because Jason has the chops to make a serious splash as a solo artist. Plus - I figured that his first record would feature "Dress Blues", a haunting anti-war song he's been performing with DBT for the past couple years or so.

Sure enough, the song made the record and, in my opinion, makes the record. He sings about Matt Connelly, a high school friend from Green Hill, AL, that enlisted in the Marines, was shipped to the Middle East, and never came home.

Check out a video of Jason singing "Dress Blues" solo on YouTube.

The songs lyrics are a knife in the heart:

Your wife said this all would be funny
when you came back home in a week.
You'd turn twenty-two and we'd celebrate you
in a bar or a tent by the creek.
Your baby would just about be here.
Your very last tour would be up
but you won't be back. They're all dressed in black
drinking sweet tea in styrofoam cups.

Mamas and grandmamas love you
'cause that's all they know how to do.
You never planned on the bombs in the sand
or sleeping in your dress blues.

Like everything else he sings, Jason delivers the lyrics in a smoky, Southern twang that drips with authenticity. The simple symbols in the song - scripture on grocery store signs, a funeral held in a high school gymnasium, sweet tea in Styrofoam cups, silent old men from the Corps - paint a sobering picture of how the costs of war extend deeply into our families and communities.

Most of all, I love that the anti-war statement isn't a zealous rant, a list of mistakes and misjudgments, or an impassioned plea to "bring home the troops". Instead, it's a simple question of risk vs. reward:

But there's red, white, and blue in the rafters
and there's silent old men from the corps.
What did they say when they shipped you away
to fight somebody's Hollywood war?

Such a simple shift in perspective poses a powerful question regarding the outcomes we're seeking and the significant sacrifices we continue to make.

I actually wrote a post a year or so ago about another Isbell song that I love dearly, "Outfit" by the Drive-By Truckers. I still think that "Outfit" is Jason's finest song, but recognize that "Dress Blues" is by far his most significant.