In Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, every artist says something about what an honor it is to stand where so many legends had stood before, owing to the building’s legacy as the long time home of the Grand Ole Opry and many memorable performances since.
Jason Isbell arrived there Saturday night (Aug. 17) during the confluence and simultaneous peak of his endeavors in music, career and life, and left his name for inclusion on the list of highlights the building can claim.
Turning in an uplifting performance filled with heart in the sold-out former church, Isbell held each member of the audience on the edge of their seat, waiting to hear his world-wise Southern characters flash to life.
“This is such a great place to play music,” he said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever liked a place as much as I like this place right now.”
“Right now” is going extremely well for the 34-year-old Alabama native, as his new album Southeastern has enjoyed strong support from Americana fans as well as major media outlets. Isbell even made an appearance on CBS Evening News, such is the cross-boundary appeal of his music and personal life.
It is true that much of the current fascination with Isbell is due to his nonmusical side. A self-confessed alcoholic, Isbell recently got clean after falling in love with fiddler and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. She didn’t force him to get sober, just kept him accountable to it. The two were married earlier this year, and Shires now plays in Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.
But in the midst of this made-for-TV drama, Southeastern was formed, and any worry that Isbell’s creative output would suffer for the lack of high times was laid to rest.
Always possessing a gift for narration from an outsider’s point of view, Isbell has lately tapped into the fertile new territory of redemption, passion and … well, love. It’s made him infinitely more revealing as a chronicler of the human condition, and the crowd at the Ryman showed its approval without hesitation.
Songs off of Southeastern arrived early and peppered his two-hour set, with Isbell seeming surprised as fans sang along to the up-tempo “Flying Over Water” right away.
“There’s not nearly as many beards here as I expected,” he joked after the song. Actually, there were a lot of young-ish collegiate types in the crowd, as evidenced by the colossal cheers that went up whenever Isbell mentioned Tennessee.
“Both of my parents are here tonight,” he remarked before easing into some of the well-loved Southern rock anthems that gave Isbell his first smattering of attention after leaving the Drive-By Truckers.
“A long time ago I didn’t know what to write about,” he said sheepishly. “So I started telling family secrets.”
“Decoration Day” spit out the hair-raising tale of the Lawsons and the Hills, two wrong-side-of-the-tracks families whose bloodlust easily rivaled the Hatfields and McCoys.
“Outfit” followed suit, capturing a typically-silent father’s attempt to impart some wisdom on his son: “Don’t let ‘em take who you are, boy/Don’t try to be something you ain’t.”
“Tour of Duty” roused the crowd so much that Isbell had to wait a solid minute after finishing it to move on. The spirited ballad follows a guy just out of the military, eating like he’s out on bail, trying to put his girl “in the family way” and swearing that he’ll never leave again.
As the applause tapered off, most of the 400 Unit exited the stage, leaving Isbell to begin “Cover Me Up,” the opening track of Southeastern and a powerful declaration of love.
Confidently telling his lover — whom listeners can only assume, right or wrong, is Shires — that neither is leaving the bedroom until the magnolias bloom, Isbell snuck a white-hot glance toward his wife as he sang, “But home was a dream/One that I’d never seen/’Til you came along.”
Following that thermo-nuclear blast to the heart, you’d think it was time to cool off with a little breezy rock ‘n’ roll, but Isbell had only barely opened his songbook.
A sense of anticipation built as he strummed into “Live Oak,” one of the most-discussed tracks on the new album. That’s party due to the interviews Isbell gave explaining how he felt worried about losing some of the good things in himself along with the bad during his quest for sobriety. Live, it came across like story time for grown-ups, full of freight ships and robbers.
“Traveling Alone” brought the lovebirds together in harmony, while “Different Days” again examined the changing of one’s personal seasons.
But it was “Elephant” that brought the Ryman audience to its knees. A songwriter’s song if there ever was one, Isbell painfully plucked a melody while describing an old friend fight a losing battle with cancer. The two hang out in noisy bars, sing classic country songs and laugh at bad cancer jokes — ignoring the elephant in the room until there is nowhere else to turn.
Isbell’s singular frame on the empty Ryman stage was in stark contrast to what was hanging in the air. It was no longer words, guitar chords and rhythm. It was 2,300 souls locked in a moment of shared experience, one conjured wholly from the mind of the singer-songwriter standing in the front.
Caitlin Rose opened the show with her Nashville-meets-Memphis-soul band and a charmingly demure manner. Always seeming to keep herself a little apart from the music, her pleasing set included “I Was Cruel,” “Only a Clown” and “Shanghai Cigarettes.”