Jason Isbell is a four time grammy winner, a soon-to be Oscar nominee, and one of the most prolific country songwriter’s around. Pretty impressive right? Well, the impressive fact is that the majority people outside of the country genre have no idea who he is. Isbell has gained popularity in recent weeks, because of his work on the soundtrack for Bradley Cooper’s film, A Star is Born. (Isbell wrote the staple song of the feature, “Maybe It’s Time”.) Jason and his band, the 400 Unit, have capitalized on their recent media attention by releasing an emotional and intense live album, Live from the Ryman. The album was recorded during the band’s sold-out six-night stand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
The reason why I love Jason Isbell’s music is because of the sheer emotion he gives to his songs and that especially comes through in his live performances. With a live album, it’s hard to maintain a solid vocal performance and a strong emotional message, but Isbell does just that. Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell’s wife and a renowned singer-songwriter in her own right, helps to share Jason’s vocal load. Amanda accompanies her husband on every single song live. This makes for a distinct sound that immediately makes an Isbell track different from any other country artist. The two blend their voices together in a way that is both haunting and comforting. In “If We We’re Vampires”, the lovers use their voices to convey the feeling of joy in a song about the inevitability of death. The addition of Amanda’s feminine voice gives a duality to each song that could not be achieved by Isbell on his own. Their partnership in life and music really gives a fascinating color and flair to the overall sound of the 400 Unit.
The 400 Unit is the tightest band I have heard in country music, and they sound even better live. They seem to keep each other in check. In “24 Frames”, it is obvious that Jason starts the song too fast, but the band easily gets him to slow down gradually without detracting from the song. The band does a good job at taking turns showing their musical talent. Isbell is typically known for his guitar work as well as his songwriting ability. However, there is not a great example of his superior guitar skill outside of “Super 8”. “Super 8” allows Jason to show off an almost George Thurgood type of dirty slide guitar; which is fitting for the story of the song. The rhythm section, comprised of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble, is best highlighted on the track “Cumberland Gap” from the release. For “Cumberland”, they are almost overpowering the rest of the band, but it’s fitting for the driving nature of the song. “Last of My Kind” stands to be the centerpiece of the album which highlights the somber sound of Shire’s violin, the sneaky complicated style of Isbell’s guitar strumming, and the choir of drunken audience goers. It is truly a beautiful moment.
This album is produced like your typical rock live album. The crowd is distinctly heard to remind you every song was recorded live. The middle sounds of the recording (guitars, voices, keys, etc.) are obviously the key focus of the production. However, it’s not exactly like your typical live rock album in the fact that the rhythm section is the loudest I’ve heard on a live record. The focus on Jimbo Hart’s moving bass lines and Chad Gamble’s thunderous drums make for a really awesome distinct sound for the record. All in all, it’s a slightly different approach to your standard live album.
“Last of My Kind”, “Elephant”, “Super 8”, and “Cover Me Up”
If you are looking for an over-produced pop-country sound; this is not your album. This album is full-blown Americana country. Its songs are about grit, tenderness, and truth; not about putting on a cowboy hat and throwing up at a tailgate. This live album just shows that Jason is not only a better songwriter but a better musician than the country artists selling out football stadiums. Isbell doesn’t need a filler track, a big light show, or twelve piece band with backup singers to play all his songs for him. He prefers to do country music the old-fashioned way. He likes to grab his guitar, sing about his life and do it with his wife and friends by his side. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s always genuine.
– Peter McDermott