Walking into a hall where Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit perform is a semi-religious experience. Usually, there’s a brightly lit sign featuring an anchor and dove hanging over center stage that’s reminiscent of a tabernacle devoted to all of the redemption and growth of the human experience. The venue doesn’t matter; the air of emotional expression is so powerful, so palpable, that you might be able to see it if you really concentrate. Jason Isbell is currently the forefront of Americana, and with good reason: his lyrics manage to weave together his experiences with those of whose are too often forgotten into a thoughtful collection of folk stories and personal revelations.
Isbell seems to carry a keen sense of observation; it enables him to convey sentiments that produce narrations so convincing that they are often confused with experiences of his own. Although he appreciates this problem, he sometimes wishes that people could understand that the artist isn’t always the narrator of work, rather than being the mode of communication. In an interview with The Ringer‘s Rob Harvilla last summer, he remarked “People have a hard time understanding that. They don’t always think Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Terminator, but if somebody writes a song with me or I, then it’s gotta be about them all the time. I think everybody knows that John Prine’s not an old woman, even though in ‘Angel From Montgomery’ he is.” To me, this use of first-person narration is best displayed in songs such as “Cumberland Gap,” where Isbell takes on the role of a distraught and frustrated child of a coal miner, who is in deep conflict with his or her understandable refusal to advance beyond the perspectives of their geographical area.
Setting plays a large role in the writing process for Isbell; he has the ability to subtly bound his characters to their region so that it further reveals the limits and nature of their identity. However, these “characters” hardly seem fictional — his narrations are so undeniably honest that they swing the barriers of empathy wide-open. As a fellow native of North Alabama, I can reason that the folk-tales and mythical stories that are often heard from a young age have probably played a pivotal role in shaping the songwriting style of Isbell, who grew up in the Muscle Shoals area. Although I could spend annoyingly long amounts of time discussing the importance and history of music in that area, I think it would be much more worthwhile to point out how this doesn’t wholly define the messages that he’s conveying. The perspectives that we hear through his songs aren’t restricted by a single identity, but they display a blend of thoughts and opinions that help the listener to become more responsive to the ideas of those who aren’t necessarily from the same background as they are.
While some musicians would rather focus on entertaining their audience, Isbell has a purpose more grand, and he isn’t afraid to discuss types of emotional conflict and political discourse either. Yes, the psychological trauma of “Elephant,” or even the progressive responsibility displayed in “White Man’s World” might be off-putting to those who are looking for something to dance to, but there’s enough of that on the radio right now anyways. What Isbell does best is his ability to transform stories of rural, working-class people into narratives that touch into the deepest part of the human spirit, and then some. For instance, the song “Speed Trap Town” off his 2015 album Something More Than Free tells the story of a downtrodden son or daughter of a state trooper who feels as trapped coping with his terminally-ill father as he does with his identity. Although the themes of this song are tragic, you could also hear similar accounts in the checkout line at your local Walmart. That’s the beauty of it.
The band’s latest release is called The Nashville Sound, and it’s been out for about a year now. (I shouldn’t even have to remind you to listen to it.) Recorded at Dave Cobb’s RCA Studio A in Nashville, TN, this record set not only a new tone for the genre of Americana, but for Isbell himself. While Southeastern seemed to be a more introspective piece that focuses on recovery and transition, this album confronts the nation’s diverging political climate, as well as Isbell’s newfound role as a father. The title of this work hints at the ever-shifting identity of country and folk music; while much of the music recorded in Nashville during previous generations tended to be dominated by white men, many of the voices that we are beginning to hear today come from diverse backgrounds. Isbell has an even greater understanding of this due to his wife and bandmate Amanda Shires Isbell, who is an incredibly talented artist in her own right. In a conversation with Rolling Stone‘s Patrick Doyle, Isbell described how as a female artist “You don’t get the same respect. It is not a level playing field by any means,” which he learned firsthand from the experiences of his spouse. Isbell takes his beliefs into action, as every artist that opened for him in his six-night residency at the Ryman last October were strictly female.
While he has managed to become one of music’s most respected artists, Isbell still retains the sense of gratitude that he developed in his humble upbringing. He’s the type of artist that you’ll feel great about supporting; speaking of, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit are coming to Alabama for two dates next week: May 6th at the Montgomery Performing Arts Center in Montgomery and May 10th at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll be at both.