On Memorial Day we take the time to remember and honor the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces from the founding of America until today. Yet in the process of recalling those who have fallen in the line of duty, it’s only natural to question the wisdom and necessity of conflicts and wars that took them away from us in the first place.
Jason Isbell deftly manages to both honor and question in his brilliant and haunting 2007 song “Dress Blues”, which was featured on Sirens Of The Ditch, his first solo album following his departure from the Drive-By Truckers. Mainstream country fans may be aware of the song from the cover version on the recent #1 album Jekyll + Hyde by the Zac Brown Band. Brown’s version adds some flourishes such as a “Taps”-style instrumental breakdown, but it’s difficult to top the understated heartbreak found on Isbell’s original.
Isbell wrote the song after hearing about the death of Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, who was killed at age 21 in Iraq in February 2006 along with 2nd Lt. Almar L. Fitzgerald when their Humvee rode over an improvised explosive device. At the time of his death, Conley, who was a football star at the Alabama high school Isbell attended, had been scheduled to go home in a matter of weeks to be reunited with his wife, who was pregnant at the time with their first child.
“I knew Matt Conley not very well, he was a few years younger,” Isbell explained to Uncut magazine in 2014. “I was coming off a tour with the (Drive-By) Truckers, and I called my mom and she told me about his funeral, which she’d attended that day, and when I got home I wrote ‘Dress Blues’ in a time it takes to write it down on a piece of paper.”
“Dress Blues” segues between scenes from the hometown funeral procession held for Conley and the hypothetical scenes of his reunion with his family and friends that would have taken place in a fairer world. Isbell finds the telling details in both of these scenarios, details that only a fellow hometown boy would know, such as the “scripture on grocery store signs” or the party that would await his return: “You’d turn twenty-two and we’d celebrate you/ In a bar or a tent by the creek.”
Along the way, Isbell asks a series of questions of his former acquaintance. There is curiosity in Isbell’s tone, even a hint of wonder, when he poses the opening query, “What can you see from your window?” It morphs into concern when he asks, “Did you get your chance to make peace with the man/Before he sent down his angels for you?” And, finally, a kind futile disgust arises when he asks his final question: “What did they say when they shipped you away/ To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?”
Isbell could easily have left that last bit of editorializing out of the song and still had a moving tribute, but the guts he shows by including it is fitting, especially considering the courage Conley displayed. The final chorus would prod tears from a robot: “Nobody here could forget you/ You showed us what we had to lose/ You never planned on those bombs in the sand/ Or sleeping in your dress blues.”
Surely some believe that somewhere Matthew Conley is aware of “Dress Blues,” in awe, like the rest of us who’ve heard it, at the towering tenderness of this eulogy in song. And, just as surely, some would argue that such songs shouldn’t be necessary, that a life so full of promise should never be extinguished in war, humanity’s most unfortunate invention. That both of those views can find purchase in the song is the ultimate tribute to its genius.