I was not sure, standing in that room, that I wanted to hear him sing Cover Me Up.

I told my wife I didn’t think he would play it anyway, that it might feel too awkward, and too raw, to share with an audience. His entire career, Jason Isbell has been willing to share pieces of himself — in interviews, in documentaries, and especially in his songwriting. But after news trickled out two weeks ago that he had filed for divorce from his wife Amanda Shires, I would not have blamed him for wanting to pull back a bit. Cover Me Up might be his most famous song, it might even be his best song, but Isbell had written it about Shires, about the way her love had saved his life when he was drowning in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. Most nights, he sang it to her (whether she was present or not) as if it were both a promise and a prayer, as an ode to the idea that love can save, and even redeem, someone who is lost or feels unworthy of being saved.

Unless you’re only familiar with the Morgan Wallen cover, you cannot hear Cover Me Up and separate its importance from the story of Jason and Amanda. While there is probably a lesson there in the dangers of engaging in parasocial relationships, particularly with celebrities, bringing listeners into their world has always been part of their appeal. Isbell’s songs resonated with people like me not just because his lyrics were literary, but because the details he chose seemed grounded in truth. He possesses the rare-but-essential talent where he can lift something specific from his own life, but still make it feel universal.

I had not planned on seeing him when he and his band, the 400 Unit, passed through Baltimore this week to play The Lyric. I’d missed the early window for tickets, and the venue sold out quickly. The days when my friends and I could see him in a half-empty Baltimore bar have come and gone. I am wistful for them sometimes, but grateful Isbell lived to play bigger rooms and reap the rewards. I did not love the idea of being gouged with fees and markups by StubHub or Ticketmaster, so despite several inquiries from friends, I had planned to stay home.

Curiosity, however, got the best of me. I shelled out for a pair of tickets the night before the concert, and Stubhub got the rest of me.

On some level, I wanted to see how he was doing and be reassured that he was still upright and steady. It was an odd sensation, the desire to check on a stranger. (I have met him once, after a show at the Beacon Theater in NYC, but he would not remember it, nor would I expect him to. There is even a line in 24 Frames about the never-ending blur of people like me, and forgetting their names.) But if I’m being honest, he doesn’t feel like a stranger. That is the allure of a talented artist, whether it’s Taylor Swift or Kendrick Lamar. They share enough about themselves that you think you see a reflection, no matter how hazy, of your own life.

For the majority of the show, it seemed like I might be correct about my prediction. It was a rock show, one pulsing with energy, and the look on his face was a mixture of joy and liberation. He tore through tracks off his new album, Weathervanes, and in between, he told stories about his wilder days visiting Baltimore, about doing cocaine and shooting pool at the Otto Bar, about taking acid and wandering for hours (through a crowd of thousands) at the Virgin Festival in search of Derry deBorja, his future keyboard player. He played Decoration Day, the song he composed about his family’s violent history that helped him write his way into the Drive-By Truckers, and me and a room full of other Subaru-driving, caucasian dads in Patagonia vests bobbed our heads in a hypnotic rhythm.

He even sang the song Elephant, but in what I think was a real-life example of subtle irony, at no point during the night did he address his own elephant in the room, his recent divorce. It’s a little unsettling to watch someone share so much of his life for so long, and then have that openness backfire when life turns out to be more novelistic than a fairy tale.

I know the opening chords to Cover Me Up about as well as any song ever written. When I got remarried a few years ago, one of my best friends played them on the guitar as my wife-to-be walked down the aisle toward me. (He’d spent months practicing, determined to get them just right.) I have sung the words to Cover Me Up loud and unapologetically over the years, in my car and in concert halls, but also gently, little more than a whisper, on porches lit only by streetlights, or on the shores of a handful of Western Montana lakes, lit only by the moon. On my left forearm, a lyric from the song is tattooed in blue typewriter ink, a reminder of home and all its different meanings.

Yet when he started strumming those familiar chords, I was still caught off guard. Of course he was going to play that song, I realized. How naive I was to think otherwise. It’s part of a musician’s job, to give people what they want. Besides, while a great love song is personal, and born out of inspiration, it represents a moment in time. It’s not a marriage. Sometimes the best you can hope for is that its sentiment lives on in others.

Songs can also take on different meanings with the passage of time, a phenomenon that has fascinated me as I’ve grown older. Sitting in The Lyric, listening to Isbell sing, I thought about Joni Mitchell re-recording “Both Sides Now” at age 57, and how certain lines — ”something’s lost but something’s gained, in living every day” — grow richer with each passing year. Perhaps, my wife suggested, one of Cover Me Up’s most moving lyrics will evolve in his mind and grow to represent his daughter, Mercy, instead.

Home was a dream, one I’d never seen, till you came along.

There is a story that Eddie Vedder once told about the song “Alive,” a song he’d written in anger as a young man to help him cope with the death of his father. He sang it for years, in packed concert halls and eventually huge stadiums, before it began to evolve. One night, Pearl Jam’s lead singer looked out from the stage at a sea of people and listened to the crowd singing his own words back to him. He realized being alive was no longer a curse, it was a gift. The audience had changed the song’s meaning, and by doing so, saved him once again.

I do not know what Jason Isbell will think about when he sings Cover Me Up on this tour, or in the years ahead. He has sung it thousands of times, and I suspect he could sing it on autopilot as needed. I do know, firsthand, that divorce is complicated, and that some scars don’t ever heal, they just evolve into a state of tolerable permanence. In time, finding fault for all that went wrong seems like a pointless endeavor, like wasted time.

If you’re lucky, and you put in the work, happy stories (and hopeful songs) can emerge from the wreckage. You learn to co-parent and you learn to forgive. You swap out sad songs for happy ones. You try to convince your children that their love stories will be different, that one day they’ll meet someone they want to hold tightly, even long after the magnolias bloom.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.

Email him at kvv@nolayingup.com.