Another feel-good pick-me-up lil ditty from Jason Isbell! Just kidding it’s a tear-jerking gut-punch. Of course it is and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Nobody does empathy better than Isbell and the characters in his songs are always fully formed and heartbreaking.
“King of Oklahoma” tells the story of a down-on-his-luck guy with a plan to pull off the perfect heist. “Meet me here at midnight / They ain’t got a camera or a guard.” Why’s he stealing? Because after an accident, he got addicted to pills. “Now my back’s still hurting / and I’m too weak for working / and I can’t keep up with all the bills.”
The chorus recalls the better days:
She used to wake me up with coffee every morning
and I’d hear her homemade house shoes slide across the floor
She used to make me feel like the King of Oklahoma
but nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore.
Crying yet? It gets sadder. The heist that was going to solve his financial woes is over before it even started. “Some bastard beat me to it / Ain’t a copper pipe left on the lot.” And it’s all downhill from there.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we love sad songs so much? Do we like to wallow in self-pity a la Nick Hornsby (“Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”) or do sad songs actually make us feel better a la Neil Diamond (“Me and you are subject to the blues now and then but when you take the blues and make a song, you sing them out again.”)? Both? Is it possible to feel sad and to feel good at the same time?
By the way, the video comes with a trigger warning: The following film contains graphic depictions of substance abuse and domestic violence that some viewers may find disturbing or traumatizing.
These two! Come on. Tackling a difficult subject with all the empathy you’d expect from two of the most caring and sensitive songwriters in the business, Shires and Isbell put you right there in the room with a young couple figuring out how to deal with an unexpected situation.
Shires told CMT, “The video’s focus on the conversation never drifts and you can really feel the emotion. We recorded the vocals for this while we shot the video.” Wow.
So yeah, pretty raw.
Shires wrote an op-ed on abortion rights for Rolling Stone when “The Problem” was released, and it’s worth reading. Proceeds from the song will go to the Yellowhammer Fund, reproductive justice organization providing services in the Deep South.
Directed by Kurt Simpson. From Reunions, out now on Southeastern.
My poor wife often sighs that she’s a mom with two only children. Our son and I are both onlies, and–apparently–we act like it. I don’t know entirely what that means but I think it has something to do with not liking to share. I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re selfish, but we like to keep our stuff to ourselves. And we like to do things the way we like to do them.
A friend of mine likes to point out that the only reason he and his wife had a second kid was that every only child he knows is weird, and then he looks at me and adds, “Present company not excluded.” Fair enough.
Jason Isbell adds a new descriptor to those of us with a lack of siblings: “over-encouraged.” That’s about as accurate as it gets.
In Isbell’s song, the title characters are childhood friends who have a good time getting in all kinds of trouble, until they eventually grow up and apart: our narrator transitioning to adulthood successfully, his friend not so much.
Heaven’s wasted on the dead
That’s what your mama said
And the hearse was idling in the parking lot
She said you thought the world of me
and you were glad to see
they finally let me be an astronaut.
It’s a classic Isbell heartbreaker in the fine tradition of “Codeine” and “Elephant.”
The video tells a different story, but equally haunting. It’s mysterious without being silly. It’s moving but not in any obvious way. The acting is subtle and captivating. You’re rooting for these two kids and hoping they get away with whatever it is that they’re up to. It’s a mean world out there, that’s for sure, and the odds are stacked against them. But good luck!