Song of the Week delves into the fresh songs we just can’t get out of our heads. Find these tracks and more on our Spotify Top Songs playlist, and for our favorite new songs from emerging artists, check out our Spotify New Sounds playlist. This week, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit tell a poignant story with “King of Oklahoma.”
In our latest cover story, Jason Isbell revealed that he has been having trouble remaining optimistic lately — a reasonable sentiment in times like these. His latest album with The 400 Unit, Weathervanes, might be built around characters he’s conjured out of dust and air, but there’s a grounded honesty to all of it that makes the tales he’s sharing feel tangible and real.
“King of Oklahoma” is a prime example of the creative skill on display throughout Weathervanes. The narrator in this song is a blue collar figure whose wife is threatening to leave him and take the kids, and while this is a far cry from Isbell’s current reality with wife Amanda Shires and their beloved daughter, the singer has been open about his past struggles with addiction.
Isbell takes jabs at the opportunistic medical establishment — “Doctor took a quick look and I got out the checkbook and left with a pocket full of pills –” but that’s just one kind of pain in a song about mental and physical agony. The narrator hopes that “by morning I won’t feel no pain,” and that might just be true, though as he shares in the chorus, “Nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore.”
For someone who exists on the fringes of the Nashville music scene, intentionally walking his path outside of many of Music City’s industry machines, Isbell’s brand of storytelling honors what makes country, Southern rock, and Americana music great in the first place — it should all come back to four cords and the truth, right? Where many other artists lately have gotten distracted by radio success and taking the easiest path to streaming playlists, Isbell feels reminiscent of the Outlaw era of singer-songwriters who broke the rules in all the best ways.
“Write my own prescription if I can’t get a fix, son/ Shit’s about to get real hard,” he sings on “King of Oklahoma” as he descends into a state of numbness. For a song about becoming desensitized to the world around us, it’s one that stirs so many feelings. It’s a reminder that in music, we need the people willing to turn their gaze to the more corrupt establishments around us. We need artists who still prioritize storytelling; maybe, we need just a few more outlaws.
— Mary Siroky