My friend was sitting under a tree as dusk descended on the Rose Bowl, listening to Jason Isbell’s penultimate set at the Palomino Festival.
She was right: nothing gets you in the feels like Isbell. He even parodied himself with “The Saddest Song Ever” on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert a few years back. And Saturday night, he was bridging the gap between Willie Nelson and Kacey Musgraves by making everyone within earshot in Pasadena a little bit depressed.
Except for me. I was doing great, still buzzing from Willie’s set and the IPAs that bitterly and aggressively started catching up to me on a hot summer day at the festival.
And though Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, might have been a big downer to a crowd that had baked in the LA sun for nine hours, it was kind of making me happy.
Sad country songs are the best, and who better to sing us through the setting sun than Isbell. I merrily soaked it all in… until he launched into his final song of the night.
That song was a rousing, passionate rendition of “Cover Me Up,” the first track from his 2013 album “Southeastern.” It’s perhaps Isbell’s most famous song, especially since popularity-machine Morgan Wallen covered it for his “Dangerous” double album in 2021. It’s an incredibly moving song about a man’s love for a partner who’s helping him recover from addiction.
As Isbell laid into the chorus for the first time, though, I stopped hearing the love story behind his lyrics. Instead, I was transported back to my earliest days of fatherhood with my infant (now two-year-old, maniac) son.
I sang lots of sad, country lullabies to both of my kids when they were babies. But “Cover Me Up” was the one song that survived the transition from one kid to two. To me, that song wasn’t about Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, anymore. It was the soundtrack to my sleep-deprived, brutal, yet precious first few months with my baby boy.
And NOW I was crying.
I’ve heard artists say that they never really know what a song is going to mean to someone else when they write it. Music can bring back the emotions tied to powerful memories in your life. I didn’t expect Isbell’s set to remind me of rocking my kids to sleep. But the connection to one of my most intimate memories as a father suddenly made that sad, country song more personal. And it made me a whole lot sadder.
So, thanks to Isbell, I have another memory tied to “Cover Me Up” now: crying in the dark and missing my kids at the Rose Bowl when I was supposed to be out having a good time.