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Decoration Day: The true story behind Jason Isbell's/Drive-By Truckers' song

Jason Isbell is one of my generation's most talented and underrated singer-songwriters. His songs paint vivid pictures with words and melodies that often leave you feeling like you had just read a good book. My favorite song of his (and arguably his most popular song) is one he wrote while in the band Drive-By Truckers and is the title track from the album Decoration Day.

Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell

The song has always captivated me. It is about a young man who is part of a blood-feud between two families which he didn't believe in, start or choose, but had no choice in the matter because of his last name. The song speaks to me about such themes as paying for our fathers' sins, family honor vs. personal values, the cost to sometimes to earn our fathers' approval, whether our destiny is predetermined by the environment we are born into, love, hate and other darker notions. The lyrics are:

It's Decoration Day.
And I've a mind to roll a stone on his grave.
But what would he say.
Keeping me down, boy, won't keep me away.

It's Decoration Day.
And I knew the Hill Boys would put us away,
But my Daddy wasn't afraid.
He said we'll fight till the last Lawson's last living day

I never knew how it all got started
A problem with Holland before we were born
And I don't know the name of that boy we tied down
And beat till he just couldn't walk anymore.
But I know the caliber in daddy's chest
And I know what Holland Hill drives.
The state let him go, but I guess it was best
'Cause nobody needs all us Lawson's alive.

Daddy said one of the boys had come by
The lumber man's favorite son.
He said, beat him real good but don't dare let him die
And if you see Holland Hill run.
Now I said, they ain't give us trouble no more
That we ain't brought down on ourselves
But a chain on my back and my ear to the floor
And I'll send all the Hill Boys to hell.

It's Decoration Day
And I've got a family in Mobile Bay
And they've never seen my daddy's grave.
But that don't bother me, it ain't marked anyway.
'Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale south
And I got dead brothers in east Tennessee.
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
He had no one to fall on but me.

It's Decoration Day
And I've got a mind to go spit on his grave.
If I was a hill, I'd have put him away
And I'd fight till the last Lawson's last living day.
I'd fight till the last Lawson's last living day.
I'd fight till the last Lawson's last living day.

If you would like to hear the song there is a great video of Jason Isbell performing it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNjP3BWXgL4

Everyone I know who has heard the song comes away with the same question: Is it a true story. I was under the impression that it was just a fictional song about the types of family blood feuds you hear about growing up in the South like I did. The most famous of the these feuds is, of course, the Hatfields and McCoys. However, if you are from the Deep South you hear a lot of stories like this. There are always those families you are told "not to mess with". In every holler in Kentucky and at the end of every dirt road in Georgia there is a family who runs the seedier side of things in the area. There are people who you don't want to cross. Inevitably though, there always seems to be another family that decides they, in fact, do want to cross them and this usually turns into a feud that can last several generations. It turns out "Decoration Day" is about one of those families and that it is an entirely true and interesting story that gives us a glimpse into the rural South in the early 1980s.

The setting of the song is around Florence Alabama in Lauderdale County. The song is written from the perspective of James Calvin Lawson (who by most accounts went by his middle name Calvin). Calvin was the son of Deward Cecil Lawson who was called "Dude". Dude Lawson was one of those sorts of people that you didn't want to mess with.

Dude Lawson was one of three "Lawson Boys" (along with his brothers Edward and Earnest) who had a reputation for being bad men that you probably wanted to steer clear of if you could. On July 14th, 1961 Detective Captain Jim Carter and Detective Owen King went to the Lawson place during a "routine investigation" and ran into the Lawson Boys. Dude, Edward and Earnest beat up the two detectives pretty bad (as they were charged with assault with intent to murder) and robbed them of their firearms. You can read the articles about this incident from The Florence Times Daily here.

I imagine it was tough being the son of Dude Lawson. He was an outlaw and hated by many people in Lauderdale County, especially law enforcement. Being born into that kind of family isn't easy, but Calvin still loved his father and, despite having a tough childhood, he had a decent relationship with his father. His father (now in his 60s) would come to visit Calvin and his girlfriend Mary Ann Moore at their trailer on Butler Creek Road.

On May 17, 1982 the three were out planting tomatoes in the garden outside the trailer. At about 7:00 PM an older model green Plymouth sedan slowly drove past, stopped, backed up again in front of the house and stopped again. Three men jumped out of the car. The three men were identified by Calvin and Mary Ann as David Hollan Hill (who went by Hollan) and his two sons John Barton Hill and Dennis Hill.

Hollan Hill yelled, "It's pay-up time" and fired a blast from a shotgun toward Mary Ann and Dude who were standing near each other. Mary Ann jumped into a ditch when she heard the first shot. Calvin (who was standing further away) testified the three men opened fire with Hollan and Dennis firing shotguns while John Barton fired a high powered .30-30 rifle.

Dude Lawson was shot several times with shotguns loaded with bird-shot and once in the back with a .30-30 caliber bullet. After Dude went down, Hollan yelled, "This ain't all, we'll be back" before the three men entered the car and drove off. Calvin ran to a neighbor's trailer to call police. He then loaded his father in Mary Ann's car and sped off toward the hospital in Florence. They met an ambulance on the road and transferred Dude into the ambulance who then took him to St. Florian Hospital. The 66 year old Dude Lawson could not be saved.

Most people reading this would believe this to be an open and shut case... a slam-dunk for the prosecutor. You had two witnesses who saw the whole thing, identified the shooters, the weapons and even the color, make and model of the car. In the rural South in the early 80s, things didn't always work out like you would expect.

Hollan Hill was a man of some influence. He was popular and well liked by many including law enforcement and city officials. He was an upstanding member of the Church. He was an award winning fiddle player who played in local Bluegrass bands. He was somewhat of a celebrity by small town Alabama standards.

Meanwhile, the Lawson's were known as poor white trash. Calvin (like his father) had been in trouble with the law and was on parole at the time of Dude's shooting. In the end, it was Calvin who was on trial and not Hollan Hill and his sons.

The prosecutor phoned in the state's case against Hollan. He didn't even bother trying to establish a motive. Why bother when you know you aren't going to win?

The Hill's high-powered attorneys had an easy time attacking the credibility of the witnesses. Mary Ann Moore was a girl about town with a less than stellar reputation... I mean she was shacking up with a Lawson after all. They accused Calvin of being drunk the day of the shooting.

Only in the South will you see a string of government officials called to testify FOR the defendant AGAINST a man who watched his father murdered in front of him. A former judge, a former sheriff and a former state trooper all testified against the Calvin Lawson. In fact, there were a slew of people in town who testified against Lawson and/or for the Hills (even going so far as to give the Hills alibis).

On Wednesday, March 28th, 1984 it only took the jury one hour to find all three Hills not guilty of murder and attempted murder. It seemed that if your name was Lawson and you lived in Lauderdale county Alabama, you could be gunned down in front of witnesses and not get justice. No one was going to testify on your behalf and no one was going to shed a tear over your death.

Hollan Hill went on to live a long and fruitful life. He died in 2008 at the age of 83. Dennis Hill passed away before his father did, though I cannot find any details on his death. To my knowledge, John Barton Hill is still alive at the time of writing this article.

The most interesting thing about "Decoration Day" to me is that Jason Isbell is actually related to Hollan Hill and not the Lawson's. Hollan Hill was Jason's great uncle (his mother's uncle is what I read). Jason said in an article that he attended Hollan's funeral. It is just fascinating to me that he chose to write the song from the perspective of Calvin Lawson rather than his own relative's.

At a concert in Norway in 2012 Jason had this to say about the song:

"So when I was a little kid I was about 5 or 6 years old, my Mama's Uncle Hollan killed a man that lived down the street from him... and uh, this was in the 80's, about like 85-86 when the state of Alabama when the "he needed killin' defense" still stood. So you could basically just say, "well he needed killin'" and that was the end of the trial and he didn't get into any trouble for it. That's kinda how it happened and I mean there's a few more details to that but the man needed killin', so... He didn't try to hide, run off, or burn the body, he just said "I killed him, he needed killin', but um sometime around my 17th or 18th year somebody in the family actually told me what happened and before that they never really talked about it that much and it wasn't the kind of thing that we really wanted everybody to know about. So, my Mother made the worst mistake in the world when she was telling me about it right as I was learning how to write songs. So I wrote this one on the front porch in Houston Texas, about 2001."

So, the Hill side of the incident sheds a little bit of a different light on the whole thing. It was their belief that Dude Lawson had done something which warranted him being killed. In all my research, I could never find out exactly what it was that set this whole incident into motion. No one at the trial testified as to the motive. Neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorneys tried to establish a motive. We really have no clue what Dude Lawson did, but we do know a lot of people in that town weren't too worried about him being dead. That has to say something about his character. Did the Hills do the town a favor by getting rid of someone who needed to go? Is that why it only took a jury one hour to come back with a not guilty verdict? Did the incident with "The Lumber Man's son" actually happen or was that a bit of poetic license? Since just about everything else in this song turns out to be true (more or less) it isn't too far fetched to think that may be at least partly based in truth too. Either way, I find the whole story captivating.

Jason Isbell will be performing at Riverbend in Cincinnati on September 6th and the Ohio River Throwdown. If you go and you get a chance to meet him, ask him more about the song for me!

If you would like to read the actual newspaper articles about the incident, you can find them below:

Article about The Lawson Boys beating up two detectives

Article about murder case going to jury

Article about Calvin Lawson testimony

Article about not guilty verdict