After about six years in the Drive-By Truckers—perhaps the most famed practitioners of modern Southern rock—Jason Isbell went solo. A couple well-received albums later, and Isbell began hitting his stride as an artist with 2013’s Southeastern. The work saw Isbell honing his ability to write deeply personal songs that not only reflected universal hardships but painted realistic portraits of life in America. With an eye for detail that rivals that of Truman Capote, Isbell throughout the course of his career has inhabited characters living paycheck to paycheck, dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, or struggling to talk about big issues such as cancer. His view of love is pragmatic, and he’s frank about his own battles with alcoholism. On record, Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, remain thoughtfully restrained, crafting songs steeped in folk, blues, and soul. While the Alabama native dubbed his 2017 album The Nashville Sound, its songs owe as many debts to Memphis (the Sun Studio sound of Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash) and Alabama’s Muscle Shoals (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Levon Helm, and John Prine) as it does Music City. They’re tunes that feel worn and lived-in, alternately reflecting the battle scars of working-class life as well as the barroom release of a Friday night.
With Live from the Ryman, Isbell captures the sound of the 400 Unit live, and does so in a venue often called “the mother church of country music,” Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Having hosted everyone from Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn to Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini, the Ryman is believed to be infused with the soul of decades of America’s performing arts. It’s fitting, then, that Isbell, whose music resonates with Southern rock, folk, country, and soul, picked it for recording the live album, a set that possesses a fierceness the 400 Unit doesn’t always show on record.
The latest Halloween film is drawing praise for its ability to tackle grown-up issues, including the long-standing effects of trauma, in a horror movie. Isbell’s music wouldn’t be suited for Halloween, but in 2000 the film’s director, David Gordon Green, made the drama George Washington, the work that launched his career and ultimately led to him tackling Halloween. Set in the South, George Washington follows a group of poor pre-teens discovering their first loves and first tragedy. It’s a languid, wordy film, and its characters, including the young George who must wear a football helmet because the plates in his skull never hardened, speak in lyrical terms and still manage to feel real. Scarred forever by disaster, heartbreak, and a lack of money, they’re the kind of kids, then, who could grow up to be in an Isbell song.
Empathy is a modern buzzword in pop-culture criticism. We seek works that possess it, or can create the sensation of feeling it. Empathy allows us to see the world through another’s eyes. But here’s a dirty secret of empathy: You likely either have it or you don’t.
Jason Isbell possesses empathy. More than that, he’s weighed down by it, as his songs don’t just introduce us to hardships and hardened folks, they ask the listener to question what it means to know that these people, places, and instances exist. For instance, see “White Man’s World,” in which Isbell assesses the privilege that allows him to make music and have a roof over his head. “I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet,” he sings, alluding to the fact America was built on land once claimed by Native American tribes. Or “24 Frames,” where a narrator has the selfishness knocked out of him after suffering adversity. And “Last of My Kind,” in which the protagonist remains unable to tune out at the sight of the homeless and finds his earnest ways get him mocked. Or “If We Were Vampires,” a heartbreaking love song that reminds us our time with someone else is limited.
The pattern goes on for all 13 songs on Live from the Ryman, the thoroughly enjoyable and crisply recorded document of Isbell and the 400 Unit. Captured last year, and featuring songs from the aforementioned Southeastern and The Nashville Sound, as well as 2015’s Something More Than Free, Live from the Ryman stands as one songwriter’s view of modern American life. The five-piece backing band—including Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires on fiddle, and a sensational artist in her own right—brings a grit and urgency to the songs they don’t naturally convey on Isbell’s intimate studio recordings.
Sadler Vaden’s guitar on “Cumberland Gap” retains the red-alert panic of a weather siren. Chad Gamble’s drums on “Flying over Water” makes the tears Isbell references in the lyrics feel like earthquakes. And the explosive “Super 8” sees the full band, which also includes Derry deBorja on keyboards, in full hellraising mode. Only Isbell isn’t out to glorify debauchery. “I’m better off sleeping in the county jail,” he hollers of a character realizing that, due to his alcohol-fueled black-out rampages, he cannot be trusted. To be sure, a louder Isbell isn’t necessarily a better Isbell. But Live from the Ryman courses with a force that makes it impossible to ignore that these songs are about life in America during a less-than-romantic era.
Live from the Ryman is housed in a thin albeit nifty gatefold sleeve with a cutout window on the front cover that offers a fitted peek-a-boo at colorful art on the inner sleeves. Not unlike stained glass, and cool. The 180-gram vinyl is not quite flat but sure is quiet. The momentary ticks are so few and far between, it feels nitpicky to mention. This is good vinyl.
True to its name, Live from the Ryman nails the sock-in-the-gut bass and kinetically charged air of a live concert when a band gets going. The kick drum has heft, the guitars bite, and when Isbell’s voice smacks the mic, the effect is both palpable and tactile. The sound feels more “at the board” than in the concert hall than other performances recorded at the Ryman, but it makes for a damn fine sound that bursts out of the (quiet) grooves.
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