Monday 10 July 2017


A look at two different versions of the same song about the small town human impact of an unpopular contemporary American war.

Okay: I had thought about writing this perhaps a year ago, when I first heard the Zac Brown band cover this song. Not sure why I hadn’t taken the chance to write up at the time, perhaps I needed to distance myself from my initial knee-jerk reaction to get a proper think about it and formulate something of a coherent response.

A little background: Jason Isbell was one of three guitarists/singers/songwriters in perhaps my favourite band, The Drive-By Truckers. He left the band in 2007 to an arguably more successful mainstream solo career.
In 2008 the The Drive-By Truckers released Brighter than Creation’s Dark and Isbell released his first solo album. Both albums were included songs relating to the Iraq war. At the time, I compared Isbell's Dress Blues to the Drive-By Trucker's The Man I Shot. The latter being a bloody and visceral Neil Young style guitar and vocal barrage about a veteran returning home and having to deal with PTSD. Isbell’s Dress Blues, by contrast, was a story about how a community deals with the return of a soldier in a coffin. On first listen I thought perhaps Dress Blues didn’t say enough about the war, but in retrospect its words and delivery ring heartbreakingly true.

You could say this a song I hold dear. I first heard the Zac Brown band version about a year ago. I quite enjoyed it.

I guess the crux of my emotion towards this cover comes from is in the changing of one lyric:

What did they say when they shipped you away
To fight somebody's Hollywood war?


What did they say when they shipped you away
To give all in some God awful war?

So why is this change important? Well, for a start, why change any lyric? In any song? Historically because a particular lyric might offend, or be unsuitable. Lets first analyse why this particular line is important to the original: it’s the only line throughout the entire song that could be interpreted as pointing blame. There is one person who’s singular quest for glory has directly contributed to this awful situation. It bothers me that this lyric was changed, but perhaps more that it was changed for something so shallow as to not criticise our leaders for when they make decisions like this.

The Zac Brown version feels a lot like ‘war is bad’  and ‘honour our heroes’ (which are indeed noble themes) but it lacks the the specific condonation of war. Its kind of a wimp out. Call out the masters of war. Call out the phony politicians. Don’t be afraid to feel disgust. Remember that its your job as a musician to point the finger. In this version there is no link between the atrocity of war and the people who are directly responsible for it. Its as if war is just something that happens from time to time and people have to deal with it.

It might have something to do with the apolitical image Zac Brown has, but the frequent use of his music by Jeb Bush at political rallies might go some way as to explain this strange change in lyric. It could also be argued that this single inflammatory lyric needed to be changed to move the song away from a ‘protest song’ towards a more reflective and humble piece, as if a single line of protest would somehow distract.

If we take a look back through specifically war-related protest songs (Masters of War, War Pigs, Fortunate Son, Rich Man’s War, etc) one of the key themes is bypassing the propaganda to unveil the overarching function of war: to make money, for political gain, to be victorious, to win popularity, to get a second term, and so on. These songs direct anger at war’s beneficiaries, who are treating people like pawns while they hide behind desks.

Teenage me protested Bush & Blair whilst listening to the Drive-By Truckers. I think I’ll stick with Isbell’s Dress Blues if I can.