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14TH ANNUAL ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE: JASON ISBELL

air jason isbell

ABOUT JASON ISBELL

Isbell has won Grammys for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song. The Americana Music Association named him Artist of the Year in 2015 and has awarded him Album of the Year two times and Song of the Year honors three times. Master songwriter John Prine, a key influence on Isbell, told the Nashville Scene, “I just feel proud that Jason is writing and putting out the kind of music he is.”

After working in the early 2000s as a member of Drive-By Truckers, Isbell left the band in 2007. The Alabama native has recorded six albums under his own name and with his band, the 400 Unit. His latest, The Nashville Sound, is nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s CMA Awards.


HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE DECEMBER 19 PERFORMANCE

Jason Isbell, accompanied by his wife and creative partner, Amanda Shires, celebrated the last of three concerts in his tenure as artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum by inviting artists to join him whom he regards as influences and predecessors on the creative path he has chosen. The guests—Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Mac McAnally, Buddy Miller, and the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings—made it clear that the admiration was mutual.

The evening’s highlights included:

“Tupelo”

“Tupelo” comes from Isbell’s 2017 album, The Nashville Sound, which topped the Americana airplay chart for the year and was the #1 album in No Depression magazine’s year-end readers’ poll. The Nashville Sound came in at #2 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 2017’s best country and Americana albums.

With Harris singing harmony and Shires on fiddle and harmony, the song—stripped of the recording’s understated R&B rhythm and stinging slide guitar—took on a more contemplative edge. Driving down a highway, the narrator backslides on his sobriety. As he struggles with just how much to drink, he considers making an impulsive trip to Mississippi to visit a woman he misses.

The spare arrangement heightened the beautiful simplicity of the song’s melody and the tender ache in Isbell’s tenor voice. The light-as-air female harmonies emphasized what was at stake as the narrator grasps for a way to deal with a weak moment, while contemplating whether uniting with a former lover might help keep his feet on the ground.

Introducing Harris, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Isbell said, “I’ve been a huge fan of her music since I was just learning what music was. I think just about everybody I know feels the same way. She’s somebody who has really added to country music and to me she is irreplaceable.”

Harris performed the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song “Love Hurts” as a duet with Miller, as they have done in the past, with Isbell and Shires providing solid instrumental support.

“Traveling Alone”

From Isbell’s 2013 album, Southeastern, “Traveling Alone” paints a stark portrait of a musician on the road and recalls the devastating effects of the years and miles. The narrator acknowledges having leaned on unnamed substances to combat the loneliness, and the song climaxes in a night where he can barely stand onstage during a performance and gets turned down by street-corner prostitutes because he is so out of it. He eventually asks, to no one in particular, “Won’t you ride with me?”

Isbell’s melodic songwriting gifts give the song a poignancy that keeps it from wallowing in darkness and self-pity. The performance allowed Isbell to trade moving guitar solos with Miller, who also joined Shires on vocal harmony. With Isbell’s wife by his side, a song that might once have been a warning about his addictions now highlights the importance of his sobriety and how it has fostered a grounded relationship that sustains him.

The trio also performed an unadorned version of Miller’s spiritually searching song, “Wide River to Cross,” that highlighted his expressive voice and, once again, revealed the way that good musicians can bring out the best in each other in a setting where everyone has room to improvise.

“Look at Miss Ohio”

Introducing Welch and Rawlings, Isbell admitted, “Every once in a great while, someone will tell me that I’m the best songwriter that they’ve ever heard. Whenever they say that, I immediately think of the people I’m about to bring onstage . . . I’ve gotten hours and hours and hours of joy and sadness and pleasure and sorrow and everything you can get out of a song, from the songs these next two artists write and perform.”

The power of writing by Welch and Rawlings came through on “Look at Miss Ohio,” from Welch’s 2003 album, Soul Journey. Welch sounded wryly insightful singing about a beauty queen letting her hair down for a spell. The song’s languid, moody arrangement gave Isbell another opportunity to display his guitar skills, as he played off Rawlings’s characteristically uncommon single-string picking in a way that brought out the best in both.

The ensemble also performed a beautiful version of Isbell’s “Something to Love” and a rollicking rendition of a Rawlings recording, “Midnight Train.” They had not rehearsed the song, but their interplay proved how quickly all involved could come up with inventive ideas on the spot. Shires, especially, shined, as her fiddle work highlighted the song’s chugging rhythm while adding some sharp, discordant accents.

To end the evening, Isbell’s guests returned to the stage, and together sang Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” The song appears on Young’s 1992 album, Harvest Moon, recorded partly in Nashville. Isbell cited “Unknown Legend” as one of his favorites from Young. Harris has said that every Young album includes a hidden gem or two beyond the songs that receive the most attention.

The choice proved a good way to close a night of surprises that made for the loosest set of Isbell’s memorable artist-in-residence concerts.

“It’s so great to have you in our town,” Harris said. Like Isbell, she is an Alabama native who took a circuitous route to Nashville and now makes the city her home. Isbell replied that he felt welcomed by the creative community, to which Harris responded, “You earned it.”

During the sold-out show—December 19, 2017, in the museum’s CMA Theater—Isbell was clearly delighted as his heroes joined him and his wife in performing his songs. He got just as much joy out of accompanying them on selections from their catalogs. The nearly two-hour program proved a fitting finale for the one-of-a-kind concerts Isbell presented in his residency. A week earlier, he played an acoustic concert with his band, the 400 Unit. To kick off the series, Isbell performed with Shires as a duo.

Echoing statements he made during each previous show, Isbell expressed gratitude for the invitation to be the museum’s 2017 artist-in-residence. “This is quite an honor,” he said. “I really appreciate the Country Music Hall of Fame for bestowing something like this on someone like me. It means a whole lot.”

He also suggested that although he has completed his residency concerts, he plans to hold on to the artist-in-residence title for as long as he can. “Until they appoint another one, I’m still going to claim it,” he said with a smile. “I might just turn up from time to time; I could stand next to the life-sized cutout of John Prine and sing a duet with him.”

In his introductory remarks, museum staffer Peter Cooper noted that Isbell “is our youngest-ever artist-in-residence, by more than a decade, because in a very short time he has written, sung, and played his way into the pantheon inhabited by past residents, including Rosanne Cash, Guy Clark, Jerry Douglas, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, and Buddy Miller.” Begun in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program recognizes musical masters who have contributed a significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. In addition to those Cooper named, previous honorees include Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, and Alan Jackson.

The museum asks that the artists-in-residence step away from their usual concert traditions to present a series of one-of-a-kind performances. Isbell more than met the challenge. Together, the variety of concerts he presented underscored the expansiveness of his talent and proved how his well-written songs can thrive in a variety of settings.

—Michael McCall

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE DECEMBER 12 PERFORMANCE

In the second of three concerts as artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Alabama-born Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, presented an intimate, stripped-down performance that proved that the band’s strengths come not from amplification but from their nuanced interplay in support of the bandleader’s narrative songwriting and subtly emotional vocals.

The evening’s highlights included:

“Speed Trap Town”

From Isbell’s 2015 album, Something More Than Free, “Speed Trap Town” displays the songwriter’s ability to create dramatic narratives populated by distinctive characters. The song’s protagonist struggles through another routine day in the small town where he was born. In a few telling phrases, Isbell presents the man’s internal dilemma while he moves through familiar scenes, punctuated by references to a difficult relationship with his dying father.

Reminiscent of songs from Bruce Springsteen’s stark album Nebraska, “Speed Trap Town” casts a hushed tone, with Isbell playing hard-edged down strokes on guitar atop a moody bed of bass notes. As the song inches toward a dramatic epiphany, an instrumental break featuring Vaden’s acoustic slide guitar heightens the tension, just before Isbell portrays the man’s impulsive decision to escape the town in search of a better life.

"Outfit"

Isbell wrote “Outfit” at age twenty-four, making it one of the oldest songs in his recorded repertoire. Among his first original contributions as a member of the highly regarded Alabama country-rock band Drive By Truckers, “Outfit” proved that Isbell could create songs as tightly written and authoritative as those by the band’s senior front men, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.

Tuesday night, the 400 Unit’s quieter version of “Outfit” still provided room for the band to add punch, especially from drummer Gamble and guitarist Vaden.

"Cover Me Up"

From Isbell’s 2013 album, Southeastern, “Cover Me Up” was the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year in 2014 and helped broaden Isbell’s fan base. A love song to his wife, “Cover Me Up” references Isbell’s decision to embrace sobriety after years of alcohol and drug abuse. The song’s emotional chorus gained power from the booming crescendos added by the 400 Unit at just the right moments.

The previous week, Isbell’s duet version with Shires had underscored how her presence in his life had inspired him to clear his head and clean up his life. The band’s version placed greater emphasis on the inner strength required for Isbell to change his habits—and the spiritual breakthrough that came with his sobriety.

During the show—on December 12, 2017—Isbell cracked jokes about the rare spectacle of seeing his band seated on stools. But he also noted that he enjoyed the chance to present his songs in a manner that focused on storytelling and melodies. The sold-out crowd shared his enjoyment, realizing they were experiencing a special performance, with the band moving outside its comfort zone.

A week earlier, Isbell took the stage with only his wife, violinist and vocalist Amanda Shires, an award-winning artist herself. Shires returned Tuesday night as a member of the 400 Unit, joined by bandmates Derry deBorja on piano, organ, and accordion; Chad Gamble on drums; Jimbo Hart on electric bass; and Sadler Vaden on acoustic guitar.

As he had done at the first show, Isbell expressed gratitude for the invitation to be the museum’s 2017 artist-in-residence, saying, “This is a really big deal for us.” Many of the previous artists-in-residence were heroes of his, he said, which made the honor all the more special.

Begun in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program recognizes musical masters who have contributed a significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. Previous honorees are Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, and Rosanne Cash.

The museum asks that those who are so designated step away from their usual concert setting to present a series of one-of-a-kind performances. Isbell rose to the occasion, with the 400 Unit providing nuanced instrumental shadings that lent a warm glow to his remarkable repertoire.

In his introduction of the band, museum staffer Peter Cooper compared the 400 Unit to several of America’s most heralded combos, past and present, including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

The comparisons proved apt, as the band lived up to Cooper’s lofty introduction throughout the concert.

—Michael McCall

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE DECEMBER 5 PERFORMANCE

Jason Isbell began the first of his three artist-in-residence concerts at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum by humbly suggesting he was not sure he deserved such an extraordinary honor. In front of a sold-out crowd, December 5, 2017, in the museum’s CMA Theater, Isbell referenced the highly regarded artists who had preceded him in the artist-in-residence series and declared himself “the least qualified” of them all.

The evening’s highlights included:

"Something To Love"

From the current Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album, The Nashville Sound, “Something to Love” comes a beautiful ode of hope directed to Isbell and Shire’s daughter, two-year-old Mercy Rose. The song begins with Isbell describing relaxed family scenes from his rural Alabama upbringing, then acknowledges that his daughter was born into a faster-paced, chaotic world, in which she will face different challenges.

The melody, as light as a fall leaf drifting through the air, gains strength in the stripped-down pairing of Shire’s sensitive fiddle work and Isbell’s evocative acoustic runs. The lyrics offer gentle encouragement, with Isbell suggesting his daughter focus on what she loves about life and, in hard times, that she lean on the pleasure and sustenance she gets from doing what she most enjoys.

Isbell quipped early in the program that he doesn’t write happy songs. But as “Something to Love” ended, he acknowledged that the theme is uplifting—and about as happy as his verses are likely to get.

"If We Were Vampires"

The most heralded song from The Nashville Sound album, “If We Were Vampires” takes a dark idea—that one partner in a couple will outlive the other—and turns it into a philosophical treatise about how the couple should make the most of what time they do have. Knowing life has an expiration date, Isbell suggests, should inspire the partners to show more tenderness, to hold hands more often, and to celebrate the gift of love while they can. Without the support of the rest of the 400 Unit band, the intimate reading of the song, with Isbell and Shires looking at each other as they sang, heightened the song’s profound message.

"Cover Me Up"

On record and in performance, Isbell’s song about an important turning point in life benefits from the dramatic shifts in texture that his 400 Unit band lend the song. The band’s contributions accentuate the moments of introspection and pain, and then provide a glorious crescendo as the protagonist realizes that the loving relationship he has embraced gives him all the reason he needs to end his destructive habits and behavior.

Performed as a duet, the song’s drama comes from Isbell’s voice and Shires’ subtle fiddle shadings that slide from discordant to sweet and tender. The result was breathtaking. The performance illustrated that Isbell’s voice and musical arrangements are just as artful and important to his work as are his lyrics.

Several crowd members protested, shouting that Isbell did deserve the accolade and intimating that he was not the least qualified of the fourteen artists to receive the honor. With a sly smile, Isbell cracked, “Well, who then?”

Established in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program recognizes a musical master who can be credited with contributing a significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. Previous artist-in-residence honorees include Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, and Rosanne Cash. For the concerts, honorees are given the museum’s stage as a blank canvas and encouraged to step away from their usual concert presentation to create a one-of-a-kind musical experience of their own.

For his first concert offering Isbell performed with his wife, Amanda Shires, a singer, fiddler, and award-winning recording artist in her own right. By the time the duo finished their ninety-minute set, they had made it clear that Isbell deserves his membership in the museum’s artist-in-residence club.

Near the end of the concert, Isbell and Shires allowed that they hadn’t performed a full concert as a duo in about two-and-a-half years—“at least outside of our home,” Shires said. The duet setting emphasizes Isbell’s concise, emotionally vivid songs and the powerful range of his voice, while Shires’s fine fiddle work vacillates between moody, atmospheric accents and licks that mirror the song’s memorable melodies.

Introducing Isbell, museum staffer Peter Cooper compared him to three previous artists-in-residence. Isbell’s songs, Cooper noted, “are as distinct, as artful, and as empathetic as the greatest songs of Tom T., Kristofferson, or Guy Clark. These songs – and the way he presents them with his voice, his guitar, and his band, the 400 Unit – have won praise from legends and raised the bar for a new generation of songwriters.”

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