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From The Ryman To A New Album, Jason Isbell Does A Lot To Help

Jason Isbell
Craig Havighurst

Seventeen months ago, Jason Isbell was performing for fans on screens from an empty Brooklyn Bowl. Last week he enjoyed the warm embrace of ecstatic, vaccinated crowds, 2,300 at a time, over an eight-night run at the Ryman Auditorium. It marked the return of a cherished annual fall residency and a chance to ponder how Isbell, a roots rocker and Americana star who’s become a household name and a revered 21st century songwriter, has broadened his reach beyond the stage.

“What have I done to help?” is the opening lyric and opening song on the 2020 album Reunions, which is only now being performed live. And what struck me as I took in Sunday night’s final show at the Ryman and the very new album Georgia Blue at home on the hi-fi is that in a time of trials and troubles, Isbell keeps finding diverse and creative ways to be that guy. At times, what he does upstages what he sings.

Early this year for example, when country star Morgan Wallen was recorded using the n-word in a drunken rant, country radio and other institutions withdrew their support. But in a paradox, Isbell stood to benefit from the crisis when fans rallied around Wallen and boosted streaming and sales of his newest album, which includes Isbell’s song “Cover Me Up.” Instead of quietly taking the windfall, Isbell condemned Wallen’s behavior and channeled his royalties to the NAACP’s Nashville Chapter.

Jason Isbell

More recently, Isbell got out ahead of the music industry on requiring vaccine passports at shows, announcing his policy early and sticking by it, including canceling some choice dates. He also opened up to the international media about his position and the anger directed his way, telling The Guardian, “We have the ability to limit the number of people who get sick. So, I can handle pushback from anyone refusing that, because I believe I am correct.”

Some of the artist’s wrangling over these issues is visible on Twitter, which Isbell has wielded like a rapier for years. (Rolling Stone called him a “master of the medium” in 2018.) In August, when songwriter Marc Broussard called him “bourgeois” and “elitist” for his vaccine stance, Isbell snapped back that “people are dying and we have a way to stop that and you are being a fool.” Besides his one liners and tussles with trolls, in mid-October Isbell used Twitter to cheerlead for donations to a Nashville Afghan refugee fund to which he’d donated $500 himself. Consistently, he’s used the platform to speak up for women, diversity, and responsible politics, including voting. More on that shortly.

This month’s Ryman residency showcased two more aspects of his activism, from his opening acts to the new music he was showcasing.

In July when the Ryman shows were announced, the roster of opening artists - a different one every night - caused an admiring stir. Because besides his wife Amanda Shires setting up the first show on Oct. 15, the rest of the nights were opened by a select list of African American women who have changed the sound of and narrative around country and roots music in recent years: Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun and Adia Victoria. Each night saw mutual artist sit-ins on songs and a lot of social media love flowing among the artist and their fan bases.

Megan Selling, writing in the Nashville Scene, framed it this way: “The singing, songwriting, guitar-ripping frontman is using his platform — as a person who can probably sell out as many shows at the Mother Church as he’d care to play — to give a swift kick in the ass to the lack of support for gender and racial diversity in country and Americana music.” While Guyton’s tweet about her night was in line with many others about the roster. “Thank you so much @JasonIsbell for using your platform to lift up people like me.”

Another Black woman getting a hand from Isbell is voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. Last fall, when Georgia came into focus as a swing state in the presidential and US Senate elections, Isbell pledged that should Joe Biden win the state, he’d record an album of his favorite songs about or from Georgia. Further, he’d donate the proceeds from the record to Georgia voting rights groups. He delivered on the promise October 15 with the release of Georgia Blue, featuring 13 songs and a roster of guests that overlaps somewhat with his Ryman opening artists.

Jason Isbell

The album gives us some nice insight into Isbell’s musical foundations and taste. It opens and closes with R.E.M. covers, as if to affirm them the Alpha and Omega of southern rock and roll (of course they are). Some songs let Jason throw his voice into new territory, bravely taking on Otis Redding’s magisterial “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and tenderly reading the immaculate lyrics of Vic Chesnutt on “I’m Through.” Georgia Blue also lets us hear Isbell and the 400 Unit play with more colors and influences than they tend to on the songwriter records, as with Isbell and Sadler Vaden twinning up their guitars on the flowing fusion jam of the Allman Brothers’ “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.” I even learned about a whole new band listening to Isbell sing “Reverse” by Athens group Now It’s Overhead.

Some of these guest vocal performances will be standout cuts from 2021, especially Brittney Spencer’s ferocious, feminist version of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” with her glorious phrasing and extra lyrics. Timely and well-chosen is “The Truth” from Georgia blueswoman Precious Bryant, interpreted with moody understatement by Adia Victoria. Also well matched is Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style” with Amanda Shires’s keening voice and fiddle. This all makes for a delightful and surprising keepsake to go along with Isbell’s run of important songwriter albums.

With all that context and a pandemic to put behind us, Isbell’s Ryman concerts truly felt like an event. In marked contrast to the hurricane of garbled guitars and engines throbbing on Broadway next door, Isbell’s show invited us in to a civil, venerated place. We each got a long souvenir postcard with blanks on the back for the set list, because Isbell doesn’t repeat himself. The seven songs that did make it onto all eight dates represent his growing canon of essentials - “24 Frames,” “Cover Me Up,” and “Hope The High Road” - plus some of the ground-breaking cuts from Reunions, which was released during the pandemic and never toured. Otherwise, it was a sweeping survey of 55 different songs, according to a consolidated list from a Jason Isbell Facebook fan group, including deep cuts and covers of the Stones, R.E.M. and Fleetwood Mac.

Sunday night’s finale was graced with an opening set by Adia Victoria, the Nashville-based, South Carolina-reared songwriter who recently released the T Bone Burnett produced A Southern Gothic. She conjures an elevated atmosphere with her large darting eyes and expressive, breathy voice, kicking out great songs like the mystical new “Magnolia.” She reminded me that beyond the power-sharing and uplift inherent in his opening act invitations, Isbell isn’t afraid to follow artists who frankly blaze with bigger personalities and voices than his own. Isbell on stage is workmanlike, pleased to be with his people, not overly talkative. The shows’ allure, beyond the tightly articulated roots rock of the band, is ultimately Isbell’s brilliance as a lyricist. I was thankful the Ryman sound system and the production seemed tailored to making sure we could hear every burnished word.

I felt fortunate to catch one of the few offerings of “Dreamsicle” from the run, with its portrait of a 14-year-old striving to process the opaque catastrophe of his parents’ failing marriage. That segued, as it does on the album Reunions, into “Only Children,” where he takes us into his youth figuring out songwriting (and temptation) with his friends, rhyming “Are you still taking notes” with “Will you read me what you wrote?” And as the set headed toward its first ending and the encores, the 400 Unit delivered a righteous “24 Frames” and then “Cover Me Up,” which built from a whisper to a roar. Isbell seemed to grow and glow with a Johnny Cash kind of stature. The final songs of the Ryman stand brought Victoria back on stage for a live rendition of “The Truth,” then took us back to Isbell’s Drive By Truckers origins with “Decoration Day.” The very last song was a curious, subdued choice, and one day I’d like to ask why he chose it. “St. Peter’s Autograph” was written as a letter of condolence to his wife when her dear friend Neal Casal, the guitarist, took his own life. She didn’t make an appearance that evening as she had on some prior nights, so maybe best wishes are due her way.

When Isbell broke through to the national conversation with his 2013 album Southeastern, his story was almost as compelling as his songs. He told it with candor in numerous interviews - about his life-changing sobriety and his redemptive marriage to Shires. Since then, he’s been a critics’ darling whose music reaches everyday folks at a deep level. He’s a unifying and inspiring artist who hasn’t made a major misstep in the public eye that I can recall. With time and exposure, that may be inevitable, but he’s building up a lot of good will and personal capital as he deftly juggles the twin roles of brilliant songwriter and solid citizen.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org