A man holds an acoustic guitar, sitting near the counter of a tattoo shop. His own arms are covered in ink and his hair falls far past his shoulders. This is JB Brisendine, frontman for Atlanta’s Brother Hawk—a rock act known for searing guitarwork—and he’s about to play a song which may be more worth your while than anything else released in the last year.
I had my share of heartache
I’ve been bruised and beaten down
Well of course. This is a blues song. Those things have to have happened, this is nothing new. But just a few lines later:
But I ain’t never gone hungry
I ain’t been without a home
And here, he punches the chord change, making you really take notice, making you almost pump your fist.
And all those times I couldn’t overcome
I only thought I was alone
Guess my hard times weren’t so hard after all
Most blues songs don’t make it much further than the sentiment in the opening lines of “Half Empty”—which JB named either after the glass or the gas tank, it’s hard to know which—but this song is sung in supplication to its audience. And that is unusual.
In rock and roll, there seems to be a binary of angst and braggadocio. There exists so much despair and so much chest-beating that you might not even realize there is anything else until you hear it. Which is what makes this quiet little tune sing out.
I’ve played Brother Hawk for plenty of people—full disclosure, my brother plays keys in the band. One thing I’ve heard over and over is “I didn’t expect that voice to come out of that guy.” JB’s plaintive tenor doesn’t match his six-feet-of-beard-and-tattoos appearance, but honestly, part of the reason “Half Empty” works is because it is this dude singing it. This dude who can sing the line “And sometimes I feel helpless” and not make you roll your eyes. Authenticity is a spoiled trope, and seeking it in your art is fraught and unnecessary. You can throw grit at just about anything and make it look “real.” Even if that is what’s going on here—and I don’t think it is—you buy it because this guy, this dude with the sweet voice, is selling it.
But where other songs may try to barge into your heart the easy way—by playing on your esteem, either low or high—the narrator of “Half Empty” implicitly challenges you to admit that you’re probably doing alright, and it’s because of those around you. In admitting this himself, the narrator bears a responsibility to recognize the struggles of others and to be there for them as others were for him. This is so much the opposite of decades of finger-pointing sorrow anthems, meant to pander to the teenager in everyone. “Half Empty,” at the same time as it offers its hand, looks you in the eye and bids you to shake free from that adolescence. It’s adulthood you can sing along to. Finally.