Lines, Please! The 8 Best Sets of Jason Isbell Lyrics

You can point to many reasons for the success of Jason Isbell. He’s a fantastic guitar player. The guy can sing with soulful passion. And he’s got a standout social media game to boot.

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But if there were one single aspect of his skill set that might stand out above the rest, it would have to be his way with a lyric. He has a literary streak in him, and yet his words always cut straight to the heart as well. While his songs are expertly constructed from start to finish, there are individual lines you can pick out of those songs that stand out on their own. Here are eight of our favorites.

1.“Outfit” (by Drive-By Truckers, 2003)

Have fun, but steer clear of the needle
Call home on your sister’s birthday
Don’t tell ‘em you’re bigger than Jesus
Don’t give it away

In his first credited song with the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell delivered a winning track about a father telling a son to do what he says and not what he did. In the four lines above, you get a dose of everything: humor, heart, and honesty, all of which have been effective weapons in the Isbell arsenal ever since.

2. ”Danko/Manuel” (by Drive-By Truckers, 2004)

15 years ago they owned that road
Now it’s rolling over us instead

Isbell’s second album with the Drive-By Truckers featured a pair of stone-cold classics, including this one where he both celebrates two deceased members of The Band and tries to make sense of what it would mean to follow in their footsteps. The degree of difficulty at which he was working lyrically was already stunning, even at what was a still-formative time in his career.

3. “Goddamn Lonely Love” (by Drive-By Truckers, 2004)

Belly up and arch your back
Well, I ain’t really falling asleep

I’m fading to black

The closing track off the Truckers’ 2004 album, The Dirty South, finds Isbell writing with his typical fearlessness and honesty. While the song is essentially a breakup ballad, the narrator also makes clear that his own weaknesses have played a large part in the relationship’s dissolution, which is why this couplet is so cutting and important.

4. “Dress Blues” (2007)

What did they say when they shipped you away
To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?

Isbell’s solo career flew under the radar a bit in the beginning (at least compared to the exposure the Truckers regularly received at that time). But he was delivering winning songs right from the get-go, including this track about a fallen friend that, as the couplet above demonstrates, isn’t afraid to call out the powers that be. 

[RELATED: Behind the Song: “Dress Blues” by Jason Isbell]

5. “Codeine” (2011)

If I call when I ain’t drunk
This old boat will still be sunk

Isbell has a way of injecting little bits of humor into even sad-sack narratives like this one. The narrator of “Codeine” speaks with the clarity of one who can see in hindsight all the mistakes that have been made on both sides of a shattered relationship. He also knows, as evidenced by the above couplet, that there’s way too much water under the bridge for any sudden revelations on his part to make any kind of difference.

6. “Elephant” (2013)

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me
No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

We could fill this list up with lines from Southeastern, Isbell’s masterpiece album released in 2013. Heck, we could fill it up with just lines from this stunner of a song, a fearless depiction of cancer and the damage that it does to not just victims, but also to those who love them. “Elephant” is filled with telling details, but Isbell wisely builds to a decisive conclusion, which he reaches in the couplet above.

7. “If We Were Vampires” (2017)

It’s knowing that we can’t go on together
Likely one of us will have to spend some time alone

Isbell’s most touching love song is made more powerful because it’s willing to go to the saddest event a loving relationship can endure: The death of one of the participants. His point is that it’s the knowledge of that eventuality that makes cherishing every living moment so crucial. Great songwriters find unique perspectives, and Isbell does that here in touching fashion.

8. “King of Oklahoma” (2023)

She’s going back to Bixby, tired of trying to fix me
Says I got some shit to figure out

Isbell delivered another killer of an album with Weathervanes, his storytelling acumen as sharp as ever. On “King of Oklahoma,” the narrator delivers the crushing details of his descent from a time when his lover once treated him as royalty. The lines above detail just how far she’s fallen, and since they’re the final words he gives us before he signs off with the chorus, it’s clear that things likely aren’t going to get much better.

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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