A Deeper Look at Jason Isbell’s “Speed Trap Town”

In December, I had the opportunity to see Jason Isbell play an acoustic show at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have been huge fans since discovering him in the summer of 2015, and for the past five years, we’ve been obsessed. It was on the heels of his album Something More Than Free that we first started listening, and I remember watching a performance of Isbell (pronounced IsBULL, by those in the know) with his band recorded at KEXP radio station in Seattle, Washington. My wife and I were hooked, and just as our interest with another favorite of ours, Ryan Adams, had started to wan, Jason Isbell’s music permeated the empty space with something new and interesting.

Since that summer, we’ve seen him over ten times. We’ve traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to see him play in his home state. We stumbled upon his grandfather in Green Hill, talking for over an hour with him, and in that same incredible day, met both Jason and his wife, Amanda Shires. At this point, we’ve met everyone in the band, too. I’ve shared elevator rides with Sadler and Jimbo Hart, his bass player. We even bought Chad Gamble, the drummer, a drink after a show in New York City. Stella Artois! And in an amazing stretch, we saw Jason and the 400 Unit play four concerts within a week. It’s safe to say we’ve been obsessed.

Why? The simple answer is the music. But there’s more to it—he’s an artist with a compelling story. I couldn’t possibly do any justice within my time constraints, but here’s my quick take. He’s such a talented guitarist and songwriter, who like many people, has conquered some personal demons. On top of that, he seems down to earth and authentic. To me, he breathes this life into his songs.

For me and my wife, though, it’s also about place. We traveled to Jason’s home state of Alabama, in part, because we wanted to become acquainted with the places mentioned in his songs. We wanted to travel along those same roads, see those same stretches of land. Many of you who read my blog regularly know that I often write about issues of place in literature, and many of my favorite books deal directly with place like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s that sense of place in Isbell’s songwriting that takes precedence, and even though he’s living and working in Nashville, Tennessee, he’s not writing kitschy songs about trucks, beers, and girls. That’s not his style, and if it were, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be spending my evening writing about him.

Instead, I’ve noticed the way many of his songs weave together place with change. Just thinking through some of his songs, especially on Something More Than Free, I’m reminded immediately of “Children of Children” and “The Life You Chose.” From Southeastern, his songs such as “Different Days” and “Cover Me Up” easily hit that mark. Without dwelling on the details, I think there’s something about growing up in these songs, about coming into your own as a person, that speaks to me. It’s songs like these that address the topic of change, which we all inevitably do as we age, but Isbell brings this theme to such poignant culminations of self-understanding and identity.

In December, I was fortunate to hear “Speed Trap Town” played by Jason and Sadler. It’s one of my favorite songs from Something More Than Free, and one of the few songs by Isbell that I feel comfortable singing and playing on the guitar. There are a few songs I’m always waiting to hear when I see Jason play, and this evening, he held this one back until the encore. Indeed, it’s that kind of song. Jason plays some simple, delicate chords, and Sadler lends some nice lead flourishes, but everything’s rather reserved, which allows the lyrics to take precedence in the song. What’s left is a powerful story, maybe even tragic, about leaving the past behind.

Coincidentally, last summer, I started searching for some blog posts about his music and came across a little piece by Andrew Ferguson, who lives in Scotland. In his post, he writes about the story-telling quality of “Speed Trap Town,” recognizing many of the same details I love about this song. His writing inspired me to reach out to him, and I’ve been reading his blog regularly, which often deals with music among other things. Like me, he’s a writer and guitarist, and maybe that helps us appreciate Jason Isbell just a little more, too.

Without giving the whole song verbatim, I’d argue that this song is a masterpiece about place and change. And like most songs of this caliber, there is an element to the lyrics that remain sufficiently complex and even ambiguous. The song deserves more thought and interpretation than one might normally expect. The gist of the story is that the narrator’s father is dying a long slow death, one that keeps him in the hospital wasting away, and that secondly, the narrator is grappling with the fact that his dad wasn’t ideal, having been a cheating husband and an absent father, in a small town where everyone knows his history.

Eventually the narrator recognizes his need to escape, to not get stuck here in this so called speed trap town. In the second stanza, he really hammers that theme. He writes, “Well, it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name / These 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” It’s such a clever metaphor here to use football to emphasize the story of changing identity. The fact that the narrator wants to forget himself in alcohol, to slip perhaps into some kind of anonymity where he forgets who he is. And although “shallow cross” refers to a football play, the diction makes one think of losing their faith, which gets even more emphasized when he refers to a “boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” Yes, he’s talking about football, but I can’t help thinking that this also relates to his father. Children often idealize their parents, putting all their faith in them. As we mature and age, however, we begin to see their flaws, and our false impressions—our dreams of them—begin to crumble. It’s deep stuff.

Later in the song, more issues of faithlessness come to the surface as we learn that a decade earlier there was a “girl that wasn’t mama [who] caused his heart attack.” We know, therefore, that the narrator has been grappling with the flaws of his father, who was also a “tough state trooper” for a long time. Police officers are other figures we often tend to idealize as honorable and trustworthy people, but the narrator’s father doesn’t seem to represent that fidelity, because he’s “just pulling women over in a speed trap town.” At this point in the song, the narrator doesn’t seem to have any illusions about his father, but there seems to be a question of his own loyalty to his father, because he’s questioning his decision to stay in this small town.

And he doesn’t stick around. Instead, he decides to “sign my name and say my last goodbye,” which implies, at least to me, that he’s taking his father off life support. Concluding the verse, he then sings, “There’s nothing here that can’t be left behind.” This could be tragic, but in the last verse of the song, we find the narrator “a thousand miles away from that speed trap town.” And there’s something about his decision to leave his father that has cleared his conscience in a sense, for the imagery in that last verse of the song seems positive. He writes that the “sun came up” and he was able to sleep a “couple hours” and he’s drinking a “cup of coffee by an Indian mound.” Those last few lines are so cathartic, and they seem to betray a rebirth, a new start perhaps, where the past has been put to rest. I think of that especially with the “Indian mound,” because that imagery seems to suggest a buried past or a grave. The narrator has found some kind of peace with his past. He’s leaving the speed trap town behind after making a hard realization. He’s headed into something new, miles away from his old life.

It’s natural to wonder about the title, too. What is a speed trap town? To me, it’s a tiny town along the highway with a reduced speed limit—maybe going from 55 down to 25—for only a short distance. It’s easy then, when driving along through these towns, to just speed through them. They’re perfect places for speed traps. Of course, the larger metaphor is the idea of getting stuck in the same little place for a long time. Maybe even being held back, too, by those around us from moving on to something better. That might even be the very heart of this song, that simple realization that we can change our situation. He even says, “But it never did occur to me to leave ‘til tonight / When I realized he’ll never be all right.” To me, that suggests that the narrator had been holding on to the past, holding on to some illusory dreams, and that he’s finally made the decision to walk away from those things holding him “trapped” in this place. That’s scary for many people, because we often fear change. It’s much easier to continue on in difficult situations rather than forge new directions. We make excuses for ourselves. It’s our thinking, therefore, that often traps us, but recognizing these thoughts is a mark of maturity.

As for that show in December, I wasn’t disappointed. It felt like coming full circle, in a sense, because many of those first performances I watched several years ago included only Jason and Sadler playing acoustic. I’m always awed by their talent, always envious, wishing I could write or play guitar like them. And listening to “Speed Trap Town” that night only made me yearn for more. In the coming months, he’ll be releasing his latest album, Reunions. I can’t wait to see where he takes us this time around.

Sizing Up Walt Whitman & Friends

It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.

I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.

Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.

And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.

The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.

From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.