So, while New York City has its “Springsteen on Broadway,” Music City has its “Isbell on Demonbreun.” For three consecutive Tuesday nights in December, Jason Isbell will grace the stage at the elaborate and intimate CMA Theater inside Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. Jason will present three differently-formatted shows commencing at the early 7pm hour as this year’s prestigious Artist-in-Residence.
For the past three years, Jason and Amanda have done something special here at home around the holidays Last year, it was New Year’s Eve at the Grand Ole Opry with John Prine and for the two previous years it was duo shows at the City Winery. Their Nashville surprise for 2017 however was one they could not have scheduled themselves.
As he announced from the Ryman stage during his final October performance at the Mother Church, Jason received the huge honor from the Hall of Fame to become its 14th annual Artist-in-Residence. I would suspect that this designation was quite a surprise to Jason since his young age of 38 compares to an average age of 64 for the previous honorees. As both host Peter Cooper and Jason rather humbly himself noted from the stage, he’s joining some legends in the elite class of artists that has preceded him.
This of course begs the question of whether he deserved it at such an early point in his career. This writer offers a resounding “Yes.” Since the release of his fourth LP, 2013’s Southeastern, Isbell has undoubtedly unleashed one of the most exciting trifecta of singer-songwriter records in music history. Since joining forces with producer Dave Cobb for it and the follow-ups of Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell has made his mark as both one of his generations finest songwriters and will perhaps be looked back upon as one of Americana music’s founding fathers.
Regarding how the Americana genre views Jason, The Nashville Sound is surely destined to be the 2018 Album of the Year as were its two predecessors. “If We Were Vampires” seems a shoe-in for Song of the Year following “24 Frames” and “Cover Me Up.” Least of course we don’t forget that both his second and third LPs were nominated and “Alabama Pines” was 2012’s winning song.
All this brings us to this first night at the CMA Theater where only 776 Isbell faithfuls got to witness a beautiful crowning acoustic performance. With the cameras running (three songs are posted here), a surprisingly relaxed and poised Isbell laid down for the Museum archives, raw and pristine versions of 16 of his classic songs, 12 of which came from the last three records. He also played perhaps in his favorite way, accompanied only by the fiddle and voice of his lovely wife, Amanda Shires. No slouch of her own, despite this being his night, he gracefully gave the stage to Americana’s 2017 Emerging Artist of the Year to allow her two songs of her own.
The poignancy of each song’s performance was accentuated by the silently attentive audience and the intimate comfort and excellent acoustics of this underappreciated gorgeous theater. The soft lighting and rotating visual backdrops added a classic touch to the presentations as well. It was a perfect setting and one that made Isbell fans feel as honored to be in attendance as the honoree.
I can only imagine what it will be like for someone to view this performance some 50 years from now. In it they will see a young man so confidently at the top of his game that his singing and guitar playing was flawless. His humility, considering he was accepting such a prestigious honor, will be admirable as will his cool and calm nature which had him telling stories and jokes between songs so naturally. It will be their future challenge to break the songs down between those that are autobiographical and those in which he just a master storyteller.
This blog has devoted by far more space to Jason Isbell than any other artist that I follow. There’s a simple reason for that. He is a game-changing artist in his prime with more potential than the 2017 New York Yankees. With both the Grammys and the CMA’s learning how to spell his name, who knows where this young man will go from here.
For now, I look forward to the two special shows to come. One is acoustic with his band, the 400 Unit, and the other is with unnamed special guests. (Likely suspects who are available that night include his friends John Prine, Jerry Douglas, the Drive-By Truckers, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.) I have no doubt that each of these shows will be as brilliant and special as this one. I just hope that I live long enough to see the day when as the wall between Country and Americana continues to come down, I can witness the induction of Jason Isbell into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
- Different Days
- 24 Frames
- Traveling Alone
- Tour of Duty
- Dress Blues
- Alabama Pines
- Pale Fire (Amanda Shires song and lead vocal)
- Something to Love
- Speed Trap Town
- If It Takes a Lifetime
- Last of My Kind
- Swimmer… (Amanda Shires song and lead vocal)
- If We Were Vampires
- Cover Me Up
Jason Isbell – Vocals and Acoustic Guitar
Amanda Shires – Fiddle and Backing Vocals