YESTER-D: Isaac Hoskins "Half Empty"
I think folks get bars and hospitals mixed up. Hospitals are places of death and change, whereas bars are actually places of hope.
In the hospital, literally every room is brimming with ending: fear, despair, loss, death — just a general dwindling. Even in the maternity ward, if a life is being brought into the world, at least two are leaving it — changed forever in the first cries of a new life for all concerned. Joyful? Sure. Unequivocally altered in one direction? Definitely.
Am I writing this from a hospital bed? Yup.
But I digress.
In the bar, it's a field of dreams. Despair may be the mud caked on your boots on the walk in, and may linger like the last stall, but you hold your mask in your hand, a liquid future wrapped in languid conversation, incubating a promise of a promise in what may well end up being some sort of lie. But right now, in this light, with these like souls, you have more truth than Martin Luther, clutching your iced missives to the church doors of your mouth. Will I be at the bar later? Sure. Why not?
In 2007, Isaac Hoskins made Half Empty, a soundtrack about living in that spot. No honky-tonk hospice, but a pub in the true sense of the word. The cover tells most of the story, but with no surprises. It's not a photo, but it's a picture. It's drink, it's smoke. It's the edge of the stage where love learns to live. There's a comfort in that level space, and folks would argue that that's what country music is about: that it's just removed enough from happy to not be folk, or just mad enough at God to not be gospel. But if you need those semantics, then you don't drink, and you don't think. This is a country album. It prays like gospel, it tinkles and wiggles like folk, and it grins like rock. But it's a country album.
Here, I'll show you. On the back cover we find him, semi-plaintive, waiting, but new-dog friendly, and as alone as need be. Probably. It's a picture from just inside the door to the bar. Half empty, but looks like there's half room, too.
We don't start down, though. Isaac's opening lines — "I used to worry all about so many things / worn-out words and broken strings / on an old guitar with stories I have yet to find" — may be cliche, but he works you through what he means. He tells us that there's shit that can be taken care of instead of hanging out feeling sorry for what can't. "Better Things To Do" tells us exactly that. There's no sarcasm, no irony, just that "all the open doors lead to empty streets." And now that he has your attention, he stays standing with an unapologetic palate-cleansing blues romp. So in case you were settled in by the packaging and the opening lines, "Hitchhiking" lifts you to your sorry feet with a story worthy of Waylon (from when Waylon first started slicking his hair back) and a hook that'll gut a catfish. If they made a TV movie out of "The Gambler," then somebody sure as hell needs to give Isaac a call for this one. I worked in a bar in West Virginia where I played this one night. It's all they asked to hear every shift after. Just sayin'.
Isaac takes these first two songs to tell you where this record is going. Then "Concrete Life" begins to alt-light the stage. "I'm gonna stop and watch that sun set tonight / for all these people who won't take the time / this concrete life ain't gonna get the best of me," and the sweet harmonies of the chorus are held up with a deep, deep country guitar solo that rides off like GTO brake lights, until that same guitar barks at us from the mean end of the bar, straight to the yang of it, "Load Up That 45."
The title is unmistakably raw, with lyrics like "God please forgive my soul / I'm only 17 years old / and I can't live like this anymore / though the Bible says an eye for an eye / he's the man who took my momma's life / and the reckoning is waiting inside that nightstand drawer." All the while that angry-ass guitar dares us to look away. This is Tennessee Williams's finest Post-It note, stuck with a truck-stop Bowie knife to the screen door by the Reverend Jesse Custer. Both songs are a slow plow drive, full of words that drag across your psyche like trying to set down a pissed-off cat. Suicide, murder, and the storytelling of them are so ingrained that the understanding of the knot becomes like peanut butter and jelly. There's no end, the beginning is moot, and the separation is impossible. Isaac takes the empathy of a murder ballad and makes it stretch across the songs, from your friend's suicide effects clear to the frightened resolve of an abused girl. All that matters is this flavor, this taste. You know it. It's cold, rolled steel. It's blood.
And as we settle into a righteous doom, "In Case You Might Forget" gives us a blanket. This is a song that you'd dearly love to forget that you could sing. It opens with a familiar country strum and the story song that paints you a place to sit. But then It scrapes and coos to the warmth that memory leaves when you're at the heavy dawn table and you wonder how honey doesn't rot. Or you somehow brush your hand across your arm while dragging the Bic back to the American Spirit and recall that someone else did that to you once upon a time, and on purpose. "You left here in early November / and I ain't heard a damn thing from you since" is the half-count of hairs rising on the back of your neck at the sound of the neighbor's car door, too close to your driveway. The song strolls through a couple packs of smokes and the best of the worst whiskeys while the fiddle calls a plea that you can't be the last one alive of the two of you to remember that other world. It'd not make sense to be there to start with. But Isaac went there, and left there, and left some things there, and somewhere along the way, and armed with his momma's iced tea and the best square smile a man can sport, he's picked up some tools in his words and strings to pull us to a hardwood horizon, and delivered a pea gravel exorcism in places like a thunderbird hitting the ground.
"I Got What You Need" un-stumbles us, though. Smack in the middle of the record, after a heart rend, then burst, then smash, he fashions new leather and whips up a triple-counter. It's an unapologetic, radio-ready asphalt anthem, resplendent with feedback and wolf-voiced surety. Flannel-chested, he roosters, "Sunday morning service / is always gonna wash you clean / you got what I want tonight / and baby I got what you need."
But later tonight does not count as tomorrow. "Waitin' on the Wind" puts a sure-footed boot on the rung of a fiddle whine and steadies the other on dusty ground and lets itself look at tomorrow like it's nothing but a pile of yesterdays. "He swears that he can smell that perfume as he's walking down the hall / waitin' on the rain to howl and the wind to fall" reminds us that there's not a lot of promise ahead when age becomes less of an adjective. But this song finds that country zen in the petrichor of ennui. It lines us up perfectly for "When You Fall." In fact, it feels like "When You Fall" is the memory of "Waitin' on the Wind." "You can talk all night to me / that and bourbon says it all / I ain't gonna be around here to love you / and I ain't gonna catch you when you fall." It's interesting to me that the drums stand out here in this outré love song, and even more so when a third or fourth listen reveals the sigh at the end of the song. It's the kind of cinema that's implied when someone you don't know calls you "boy." Does it matter? Only as much as it has to. And after a couple of times, it stopped mattering. Carry on.
Isaac picks up that un-bluster and runs with it full-tilt. "I know that it's gonna rain / it sure don't matter who's to blame / all I know is that I'm comin' back inside," he avows on "White Trash Cocaine." He starts to close this thing out with one hand on the wheel and the other doing a 55-mile-an-hour cassette fish. Between the strong guitar, lyrics laced tighter than a pigskin string, and the hotbed keys, "White Trash Cocaine" and "Mississippi Blackjack" were born to blare from an F-150. Easy and biting, riding like a bottle rocket, both songs are paired well, like much of the music gathered here, and they complement each other nicely. This album portions its thoughts, plotted like episodes on a picnic table. It has a Guthrie feel, or possibly an Uncle Tupelo vibe, as the songs flow into each other's intents to quilt up that soundtrack I was talking about a while ago, see? It's the kind of thing that you could drop in your machine and leave there for a moon or two and keep getting new things from it. And that's what we want, right? A record, like a record of events.
Then "I Gotta Prove" hits pretty close to home. Isaac is singing to the ends of the bar, to the never-empty seats and sometimes-empty faces. This is the hair shirt of being away from town, then coming back, then walking through the bar door in the twin waves of peace and disgust that it's still pretty much how you left it. "I gotta prove to you / to myself I can make it through." It happens to all of us, and it sometimes feels like everywhere we may have set down our heart for a minute is built on it, and Isaac pockets it like a worn lighter. "Well I walked past a place I knew too well / memories and teardrops are all they sell." He calls us out, but doesn't name us. He hugs us goodbye though we've not been around each other in weeks. Which brings us around to the titular final song.
"Half Empty" opens in tremolo, and you can feel it. It's the drive home over fake-lit streets and the bounce of glare through teary eyes. You've done it. It's the latest part of the night, the blue hour when the vampires are headed home, and you've been driving and singing without realizing that somewhere along the way you cried a little. Your gauges are blurry, and there's ash on your shirt even though you don't really even smoke. And where is everyone. And why is everything so yellow. And how far do you want to be from home, and how much gas is left in the tank of this old jeep. Oh.
Half empty. Just like that glass.
You can find Isaac Hoskins online at isaachoskins.com, or at Dan's. He'll have a smile for you; I'd bet a shot of Bulleit on it.
Header image courtesy of Isaac Hoskins
Header image layout designed by Christopher Rodgers