Fire Note Says: Labels fail Outlaw country musicians, but Jason Isbell delivers a great record in the tradition of great roots rockers and country players.
Album Review: For the record, there has long been a vein of outlaw music running through what has often been labeled ‘country music,’ represented by the untamed music spirits of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker and late great songwriters/mentors Guy Cark and Townes Van Zandt. Just like punk, grunge, and alternative rock were a rejection and response to polished commercial rock & roll and pop, folk and country artists who refused to play by the rules on commercial country radio, often called the ‘Nashville sound,’ in favor of authentic, genre-blurring roots music that was willing to color outside the lines as long as the emotions were real and human, the music true and good.
You hear that spirit in some of the recordings of the original Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and early Elvis Presley, and it lives on in original outlaws like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Joe Ely, and finds expression in rock bands like Son Volt, Old Crow Medicine Show, and country artists like Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, and of course Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. You can add to that list current alt/country poster boy, Jason Isbell, whose new one is titled with a touch of irony, The Nashville Sound.
Isbell first gained national attention as a member of Drive-By Truckers, where he played with them from 2001 to ’07, with a few songs appearing on their albums Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and A Blessing and a Curse. In 2015, Isbell’s fifth solo album, Something More Than Free, was his biggest commercial success and he picked up Grammy awards that year for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song for “24 Rooms.” While recent outings from Stapleton and Simpson have certainly upped the ante, this latest from Isbell, and his band The 400 Unit, is a classic in its own right, rooted in phenomenal songwriting and spirited performances.
The Nashville Sound starts out with an acoustic ballad “The Last of My Kind,” which feels a bit autobiographical as Isbell describes how he doesn’t fit in the urban world surrounded by people “clapping on the one and three,” and how the world described by is Mama back in Arkansas is nothing like the modern world today. And then in a pattern that persists throughout the disc, that band kicks with a loud rocker, “Cumberland Gap,” about the changing culture and generations pass in mining towns when “no one wants the coal.”
Next up is a gentle song about returning to “Tupelo” after a failed marriage, followed by a rocker about racial privilege and guilt, titled “White Man’s World.” You read that right, a country rock band writing a song about White privilege at the expense of Native Americans and African slaves: “Got the bones of the red man under my feet. The highway runs through the burial grounds and past the oceans of cotton.”
So, Isbell surprises with his culturally aware commentary and ability to criticize dehumanizing forces and his own place in this complex and challenging world, not the expected beer commercial/girl in tight jeans fodder country radio continues to force feed the masses. Isbell also addresses that modern malady in the cathartic rocker, “Anxiety,” and also delivers two of the most unique and literate love songs that come to mind. “If We Were Vampires” mourns the fact that he and his love may only get “forty years together” before one of them dies, that explains his need to hold on to her hand and give her “every second I can find, and hope that it isn’t me who’s left behind.” “Molotov” acknowledges that he’s forsaken his foolish teenage promise to himself to burn out rather than fade away, acknowledging that it’s not so bad to ride through this world at a more sensible pace when you’re accompanied by “a brown-eyed girl who rode with me through this mean old world.”
On the whole, when Isbell let’s The 400 Unit loose they rock hard and well, more intense than most everything on Something More Than Free, living up to their name, taken from the psych ward of the hospital near Muscles Shoals where Isbell grew up in Alabama. That location, near to the world famous recording studio, suggests the soulfulness, the authentic lyrical intensity and musical depth that flows through this album’s musical endeavors. With his wife Amanda Shires on fiddle, Drivin’ N Cryin’ guitarist Sadler Vaden, and Derry DeBorja (formerly of Son Volt) on keyboards, it’s worth mentioning that they offer elegant and satisfying contributions to even on the quieter material, playing with artful restraint and melodic clarity.
The album closes with two songs that serve as benedictions. There’s the pop rock anthem of “Hope the High Road,” which explains why he chooses to take a positive tack even though he knows folk are “uninspired and likely mad as hell.” He sings, “last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know. But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch. I’ll meet you up here on the road…” which “leads you home to a world you want to live in.”
“Something to Love,” a pop country song with a lovely fiddle track, is a word of blessing to his daughter even though he doesn’t “quite recognize the world you’ll call home.” He wishes that she “find something to love. Something to do when you feel like giving up. A song to sing or a tale to tell. Something to love, it’ll serve you well.”
So, ultimately it doesn’t fit in any obvious box, this outlaw country music, whether it’s called ‘country rock,’ ‘Americana’ or “alt country” it’s not an easy fit in any of the hard and fast categories. What seems to most matter here is artistic authenticity, songs that connect to the real stuff of human existence, and playing that honors the best in the roots music of America, whether it country, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, rockabilly, cow-punk or some combination of the above, it’s good music when you hear it. Like Justice Stewart said about pornography in that obscenity case that reached the Supreme Court, “I know it when I see it,” and this is good music… you’ll know it when you hear it.
Key Tracks from Jason Isbell: “If We Were Vampires” / “White Man’s World” / “Hope the High Road”
Artists With Similar Fire: Chris Stapleton / Sturgill Simpson / Son Volt / The Bottle Rockets / Ray Davies & The Jayhawks
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb