Song of the Week delves into the new songs we just can’t get out of our heads. Find these tracks and more in 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 his 400 unit tell a poignant story with the “King of Oklahoma.”
In our latest cover story, Jason Isbell reveals that he’s been having trouble staying optimistic lately — which is a reasonable feeling in times like these. His latest album with The 400 Unit, weathervanesIt may be based on characters he drew from Dust and Air, but there’s an unflinching honesty to it all that makes the tales he shares feel so tangible and real.
“The 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 who threatens his wife to leave him and take the children, and while this is a far cry from Jezebel’s current reality with his wife, Amanda Sheris, and their beloved daughter, the singer has been open about his past. Struggles with addiction.
Isbell takes the shots at the opportunistic medical establishment—”The doctor took a quick look, pulled out my checkbook, and left with a pocket full of pills—”But that’s just one kind of pain in a song about mental and physical suffering. The narrator hopes that “by morning I’ll have no pain,” and this may be true, though he shares in the chorus, “Nothing makes me feel like nothing anymore.”
For someone who’s on the fringes of the Nashville music scene, deliberately walking his way outside of the many industry machines in Music City, Isbell’s brand of storytelling honors what makes country, Southern rock, and Americana great in the first place—it should be everything we come back to. Four ropes the truth, right? Where many other artists recently got distracted by radio success and took the easier route to airing playlists, Isbell feels reminiscent of the Outlaw era singer-songwriters who broke the rules in the best of ways.
“Write my prescription if I can’t get a cure, son/Shit’s about to get really hard,” “Oklahoma King” sings as he descends into a state of numbness. For a song about desensitizing to the world around us, it’s a song that evokes a lot of emotion. It’s a reminder that in music, we need people who are willing to turn their sights on the more corrupt institutions around us. We need artists who still prioritize storytelling; Maybe, we just need a few more outlaws.
– Mary Siroke