About the Song
Track: Live Oak
Album: Southeastern (2013)
Artist: Jason Isbell
Songwriter: Jason Isbell
“There's a man who walks beside me / It is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”
“I carved a cross from live oak and a box from shortleaf pine
Buried her so deep she touched the water table line
I picked up what I needed and I headed south again
To myself I wondered, Would I find another friend?”
© Southeastern Records
Here’s Why I Love It
I’ll go on record saying that I don’t believe there to be a better songwriter than Jason Isbell. His ability to tell a story that’s both clear and mysterious is something to marvel at. Isbell’s lyrics go as deep as you want to take them. I featured his song If We Were Vampires in my article 5 Songs That Will Move You to Tears. There are countless songs I could have featured here, but Live Oak is a special song because it’s such a great story.
On the surface, you have a man who has lived a rough past—alcohol, drugs, and violence. And he’s romantically lost, as he sings “I’d never held a lover in my arms or in my gaze / So I found another victim every couple days.” Finally, he meets a woman and falls in love, but ends up realizing she loves the man he doesn’t want to be. It’s the man he wants to bury. No matter what situation you’re in, this idea can ring painfully true. It’s like...do you love the idea of me or do you love me?
So, what does this man do? He regretfully buries her (leaves her) using “live oak” and shortleaf pine (type of wood.) It’s time to move on with his life. Like many of us, he’s left to consider, Was it a good decision? Will I find another lover quite like her? After all this time, does she still see the man I’m trying to live down or finally as the man I want her to see me as?
As the song ends, he subtly changes one word—“There’s a man who walks beside her…”—and changes everything. He realizes that his shadow may still live beside her every day. Perhaps wondering, How did I affect her? Is she still chasing those same ol’ guys?
Life shapes us in many different ways. We all have different versions of who we are. Some more drastic than others. And the time period and context in which we meet people has a large impact (obviously) on how we view each other. But what about those people who once saw you in a different light? How do they look at you? Do they see you for who you are now, or do they see that person who walks beside you?
I hate to ascribe intent because I don’t know Isbell. But I like to imagine this song is about Isbell’s getting sober and burying alcohol for good. Will he find something else to rely on besides alcohol? Will people look at him the same way? Or what will they see? Of course, he just wants the world to see him for what he is now, not for what he once was. A notion I think we can all relate to on some level.
*This article is part of the ongoing Lyrics I Love series: short interpretations of the meaning and story behind one song with lyrics that move me.