The New Americana Music Handbook Trilogy and Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Ohio Theatre

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Jason Isbell is the most important person in contemporary popular American music. This is not an opinion, that is a fact – at least on my blog. For this entry we will be discussing his recent Columbus, Ohio, live performance (with his backing band The 400 Unit) at The Ohio Theatre and his trio of albums. Also, his wife Amanda Shires is my celebrity crush (check out her NPR Music page and you will understand why) and a great musician, so he has that going for him, which is nice.

For those who are not familiar, Isbell was a member of Country Rock/Americana Music stalwarts Drive-By-Truckers from 2001-2007. In 2007 he struck out on his own and has released six solo albums since. In 2012, Isbell became sober and his work since has reflected his past struggles and future optimism.

His lyrics have also garnered support from his peers to crown him as the greatest lyricist of his generation. If you don’t believe me, just look at what this Muppet had to say.

The three albums Isbell has released since becoming sober are, in order: Southeastern, Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound. These albums have taken Isbell to new levels of achievement, both critically and commercially, and led to two Grammys and four American Music Honors & Awards. These albums also compromise what I like to call the New Americana Handbook Trilogy. Lets review each.

SOUTHEASTERN (2013)

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I first became familiar with Isbell while listening to Fresh Air on a road trip to Philadelphia. In mid interview, host Terry Gross asked Isbell to perform his popular song Elephant, which tells the story of two barfly friends, one of which is dying of cancer. I was blown away by the story he told and the lyrics he emoted. I was instantly hooked and have been a fan ever since.

Other top picks include:

  • Cover Me Up – an acoustic love song about the need to be redeemed and falling for your redeemer.
  • Stockholm – a tune about leaving your old habits for a new life and embracing your ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. This is also the first song, at least that I was familiar with, in which Isbell’s spirituality plays a role:

‘Read the good book and studied it too

But nothin’ prepared me for livin’ with you’

  • Different Days – another diddy about getting sober with bonus points for finding a rhyme scheme for benzodiazepine. Isbell should have won the Grammy for this feat alone.
  • Live Oak – my favorite song on the album is an acoustic murder ballad the would have felt at home on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. The lyrics are intense, and Isbell finds a macabre use for the term ‘water table line’.

 

Something More Than Free (2015)

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Of the three albums being reviewed today, Something More Than Free took the longest for me to appreciate but has grown on me the most. It is an album that accumulates interest on each listen and is perfect for a road trip. Isbell doesn’t stray far from the blueprint of telling rich and intricate stories with a simple melody and chord structure. It is difficult to consistently pull off this trick but Isbell manages to perform it with ease. If Southeastern embraced the concept of sobriety, Something More Than Free is addicted to being an adult. This is eloquently stated on the opener ‘If It Takes a Lifetime‘:

‘I’ve been working here 

Monday, it’ll be a year

And I can’t recall a day when I didn’t wanna disappear

But I keep on showing up

hell-bent on growing up

If it takes a lifetime’

Other album highlights are:

  • 24 Frames – for those who don’t know, one second of video production (movies, television, etc.) is composed of 24 still frames of photography. The motif of this song is that your life can change in an instant. Once again, spirituality makes an appearance:

‘You thought God was an architect, now you know

He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow

And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames

In twenty- four frames’

  • Flagship – this musical vignette tells the voyeuristic tale of a couple watching a much older couple in a diner. The older couple have nothing left to discover about each other and eat their dinner in silence. The younger couple vow to not let this happen to each other. My wife Megan likes this song because it references Hilton Head.
  • Something More Than Free – the title track takes up the cause for the working class and champions the proletariat as they fight to exist in a world run by the bourgeois. This song could easily find a home on a Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson album. Again, spirituality makes a cameo:

‘When I get my reward my work will all be done

And I will sit back in my chair beside the father and the son

No more holes to fill and no more rocks to break

And no more loading boxes on the trucks for someone else’s sake’

  • Speed Trap Town – perhaps the most concise story on an album full of concise stories. This song resonates with me for many reasons, particularly because I was raised in a very similar town – cops, football and rumors of adultery behind every corner. Anyone from northwestern Ohio can relate to the following stanza:

‘Well it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game

Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name

These 5A bastards run a shallow cross

It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss

 

The Nashville Sound (2017)

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Released in June 2017 and clocking it at barely 40 minutes, this album is the most recent and shortest of the Handbook Trilogy. Southeastern embraced sobriety, Something More Than Free welcomes adulthood and The Nashville Sound finds joyful purpose in being a parent. Frankly, it is a riveting and insightful album that celebrates the joys and anxieties of parenting while opining the past, present and future of Music Row.

This album also gives billing and focus to the 400 Unit, Isbell’s backing band. Comprised (mostly) of members from Isbell’s home state of Alabama, he and the 400 Unit certainly have a Springsteen/E Street vibe and rapport. Making an album and touring with a full band certainly seems like the right move after the stripped down nature of Something More Than Free.

Highlights include:

Last of My Kind – the John Prine influence is heavy on the album opener, both musically and lyrically. This tune explores what it means to feel alone and is an allegory for Isbell’s traditional country sound in a city that has been, at best, reticent to embrace the return of traditionalism:

‘I tried to go to college but I didn’t belong

Everything I said was either funny or wrong

They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans

Laughed when they gave me amphetamines

Left me alone in a bad part of town

Thirty-six hours to come back down

Am I the last of my kind?

Am I the last of my kind?’

  • Cumberland Gap – a 1980s bar band rocker that celebrates rock’s roots. Simple, toe-tapping perfection.
  • If We Were Vampires– this ballad is perhaps the most heartfelt love letter to a spouse in modern music history that is intensified by Isbell’s wife – and 400 Unit member – Amanda Shires playing fiddle and contributing backing vocals. Again, lyrically Isbell is at the top of his game AND everyone else’s game. It is really not a song that any review will do justice to. Just click on the song title already.
  • Anxiety – this long rocker sees Isbell & Company dip their collective big toe into the southern jam band pool. At almost seven minutes (17% of the album’s length), it is the longest Isbell solo track that I am aware of and gives the 400 Unit a chance to showcase their chops.
  • Something To Love – my favorite song on the album doubles as advice to Isbell’s new daughter, all the while reflecting on his own youth and mortality. Here are the lyrics – you should click on the link, it is worth it. My favorite lyrics from the entire album are on this track. My wife is sick of me singing this around the house:

‘I was born in a tiny southern town

I grew up with all my family around

We made music on the porch on Sunday nights

Old men with old guitars, smoking Winston Lights’

Excuse me while I go smoke a Winston Light. Now, it is show time.

Live

So … I am a bit of a bad blogger. I completely missed Amanda Shires as the opener. She is my celebrity crush, and I instead stayed at 16-Bit with my friends Tom, Judd and Mark for a few pregame beverages. This is probably good news for the Isbell family, as I surely would have stolen her away. Sure, the drama would have made for a great album of new music, but I respect the sanctity of marriage (no matter who it is between), and the fact that the Isbells recently had a child together. I don’t need any bad Karma. Consider yourself lucky, Isbell.

So, if you have never seen a show at The Ohio Theatre, you are missing out. Originally opened in 1928, The Ohio Theatre has been continuously open since and originally functioned as a movie house. The Ohio Theatre is ornate with an intricate ceiling and beautiful interior design. The acoustics have passed the test of time, and the only complaint I have is that the 3,000 seat capacity venue only seemed to be at 75% capacity. Shame on us, Columbus.

As the band started into the extended rocker 24 Frames, I started thinking about the onstage/studio chemistry between Isbell and Shires. Undoubtedly, they are the First Couple of Country Music, but does that mean they are new Johnny and June? I then thought maybe they are closer to Paul and Linda, but Shires is MUCH too talented to be Linda (no disrespect intended). I thought I had the riddle solved when Bruce and Patti popped into my mind, especially as the band transitioned into Cumberland Gap, but then I realized I was missing the picture. I was simply watching a group of great musicians who were led by an artist who is as comfortable in his skin with them as without them. This situation doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s always great to see live.

Isbell and Co. played 19 songs in total, all but three being from the albums reviewed for this entry. He and his backers transitioned between rocker and ballad seamlessly and each musician was given many opportunities to display their prowess with solos.

Other highlights included the up tempo tunes Cumberland Gap, Flying Over Water and the ridiculously fun Super 8. Slower tempo was the name of the game at the end of the show with crowd favorites Cover Me Up and the encore If We Were Vampires (which I recorded and included for your viewing pleasure).

 

 

All in all, this was the perfect venue for Isbell and friends to showcase their brand of Americana/Country Rock. At $50, our tickets were value filled, and we had a great time. In two years, Isbell (solo and with The 400 Unit) will not be playing venues this size, so if you get a chance to see them now, jump on it.

ADDITIONS & SUBSTITUTIONS

  • Dave Cobb should get a lot of credit for Isbell’s recent popularity, as he produced the three albums on this blog. Cobb is the hottest producer in the business and has also worked with Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings and Zac Brown Band. Cobb is an essential part of the Retro Country Resurgence, and his country thanks him for it.
  • The demo version of Elephant trades the lyrics ‘Harry Nilsson Songs’ for ‘Classic Country Songs’. I REALLY wish Isbell would have stuck with Harry Nilsson, because you know … Harry Nilsson. I think I will review Nilsson’s work on a menu with Gary Shandling’s work. Geniuses.
  • The two songs from the show that I was unfamiliar with were Decoration Day and Never Gonna Change, both from Isbell’s time in Drive-By-Truckers. Do you have a favorite Drive-By-Truckers song? Go ahead and leave it in the comment section! Thanks!

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