I can comfortably say that the first time I encountered Jason Isbell’s name was on a printed schedule at Bonnaroo 2013, where he was joined by longtime supporting band The 400 Unit for an unfortunately scheduled Sunday afternoon slot at the eternally sundrenched Which Stage. If I were a dishonest writer, I would spin a yarn here about how I beat the heat to go catch Isbell and his band in the cruel June heat on the last day of my first Bonnaroo, but I didn’t. I can’t blame a dreadful hangover for my decision either, just a desire to catch Mac DeMarco at a smaller stage.
I didn’t gain a true appreciation for Jason Isbell until earlier this year, when he was interviewed for the exceptional WNYC podcast “Death, Sex and Money” in conjunction with his wife, Amanda Shires. In the thirty-minute episode, the couple chat with host Anna Sale about everything from the initial issues of trust in their union to the concept of financial security as it related to Isbell’s growing success as a musician.
And what a growth it’s been. The past year has seen Isbell handsomely rewarded for his excellent 2013 album Southeastern, both in the critical and commercial sense. Not only did he waltz into The Ryman to nearly sweep the Americana Awards this September, but he took The Mother Church by storm the very next month, selling out an entire weekend to a warm hometown reception.
I remember passing by the auditorium on the first night of that weekend, tempted to buy scalped tickets but ultimately passing, knowing there would be other chances to catch Nashville’s newest darling. Less than two months later, I found that assumption coming true, in the form of my part-time employer City Winery putting on their own three-night stretch of Isbell shows. Predictably enough, each show sold out very quickly, to the point that the venue had to accommodate for the high demand by incorporating additional tables and allowing for standing room only spots. Jason Isbell’s victory lap was in full effect, and seemingly everyone in town was itching for a spot in the stands to witness it for themselves.
The capacity crowds were handsomely rewarded by three very intimate evenings in one of Nashville’s up-and-coming listening rooms, kicked off each night by his extremely talented spouse. Taking the stage with just her guitar and an upright bassist by her side, Amanda Shires proved herself up to the daunting task by pulling from her own discography, playing each song with a hushed intensity that stole the crowd’s attention from previous interests. Shires also cemented herself as a relatable stage presence, keeping the crowd’s spirits high with tales from the road in between songs. The excitement peaked once Isbell came to join her onstage for the latter half of her set, showing off a more blues-influenced side of his guitar playing, returning the favor for her work as a key member of The 400 Unit.
Still, as appreciative as the audience was of Shires’s hypnotic tunes, the tension was palpable each night for the true arrival of the man ofthe hour. In the two months that I’ve spent in Nashville so far, I’ve had no problem easing into conversation with the locals about Jason Isbell. In a country music scene oversaturated with the Top 40-leaning pedestrian fare (AKA #brocountry) of acts like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, and middle-aged men on their last gasps of relevance like Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney, a figure like Isbell stands out.
The storyline of Isbell’s escape from the clutches of alcoholism has been talked to death by this point, and so has the story of his rise to the top. What remains is nothing more than a man, sincere and driven in his pursuit of the truth, with nothing but his words and his instrument. This much became clear as he took the stage, hoisting his acoustic guitar on his shoulders and bellowing a different tune to start out each night. Varying setlists aside, the crowd reaction was identical across the board once this future legend walked into the room: rapturous applause into dead silence. It’s telling that no amount of liquid courage could bring a single person in the room to dare utter a stray syllable once he got into it. The respect for this man runs deep in this town, and I was interested by a post-shift conversation with a coworker who mentioned their belief that much of America had yet to catch onto Isbell’s hot streak.
I couldn’t help but agree, as I can’t imagine anyone in my hometown discussing the nuances of the songwriting on Southeastern or even batting an eyelash at his name, unless forced to by some outsider influence. Maybe that’s what makes this moment so special, for Isbell and Nashville respectively. There’s not too many times in a musician’s career where you’ll be able to witness them in this transition, from a closely guarded secret into a full-fledged success story. It’s easy to see why a man like this has gained this appreciation so close to home, and it’s difficult to think that the rest of the country will have any trouble catching on.
– Kevin B.