If you were a young kid joining a band of veterans coming off their biggest album to date, would you prefer to sink into the background and not get in the way? Or would you have the stones to step in and write songs to compete with the ones that were penned by your established bandmates. On the 2003 Drive-By Truckers album Decoration Day, Jason Isbell, the neophyte in that scenario, chose the latter, and contributed two instant classics in “Outfit” and the title track.
Much has been made of Isbell’s rocky tenure with DBT, especially considering his now-soaring solo career. But in a recent interview with Men’s Journal, Isbell expressed gratitude at his time spent in the band. “There were more positives than negatives by a long shot,” he said. “You know, to go in and be accepted by that band, to be doing something that was really magical, weird, violent, vulgar, extreme …”
All of those adjectives can apply to “Decoration Day,” one of the earliest examples of Isbell’s knack as a story-song master. It’s a song where he drops us into a long-simmering feud between the Hills and the Lawsons, one that you might presume is too wild and sordid to be true, until you do a quick search and realize that it is true, and that Isbell was distantly related to Holland Hill, the antagonist in the tale. That he chooses to instead tell the tale from the perspective of the remaining Lawson seems to be Isbell’s sly way of admitting the futility of taking sides in such a seemingly senseless episode.
“Decoration Day” is meant to be a time for remembering those we’ve lost, but the protagonist seems as if he’d just as soon forget all that has transpired. His dead father warns the younger Lawson about covering up his grave: “Keeping me down, boy, won’t keep you away.” From there, he recounts the story’s violent details, how his own part in beating up one of the Hill clan precipitated revenge when Holland shot Lawson’s father in front of him.
“Well, I never knew how it all got started,” Lawson says, admitting that the origins of this feud have long since ceased to matter even as the violence continues. Lawson’s father demands that he beat up one of Hill’s sons, Hill kills the father, and on it goes. The younger Lawson’s protestations show glimpses of self-awareness: “Well I said, ‘They ain’t give us trouble before/ We ain’t brought down on ourselves.’” And yet he finds himself unable to break away from the cycle: “But a chain on my back, my ear to the floor/ And I’ll send all the Hill boys to hell.”
Lawson goes on to talk about all of the tragedy his family has encountered, ending with the death of the patriarch: “My Daddy got shot right in front of his house/ He had no one to fall on but me.” In the closing verse, Isbell reveals how pointless all of this has been, making this tale even more heartbreaking somehow: “It’s Decoration Day/ And I’ve got a mind to go spit on his grave/ If I’d been a Hill, I’d have put him away/ And I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.”
It is practically miraculous that Isbell was able to tell the story thoroughly enough that we understand it while still giving the protagonist such a rich inner life. “Decoration Day,” complimented by the rolling musical thunder of the The Drive-By Truckers, was one of his first classics. Many more have followed since.