A few weeks ago, I lamented that so much of the mainstream country music coming out of Nashville these days simply isn’t country music. Pop music sung with a twang and a drawl is still pop music. And for longtime country music fans like myself, this is a problem.
But thank goodness for guys like Jason Isbell.
Isbell made a name for himself 15 years ago as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. Since leaving the band, Isbell went solo, went through rehab for substance abuse, and has emerged as one of this generation’s best singer-songwriters. Although most of his songs are not autobiographical, it feels like they are, as if he’s lived the stories he sings. Call it believability; call it street cred; call it masterful storytelling; whatever it is, it makes for a more full-bodied, “authentic” country music experience.
Take Isbell’s 2013 masterpiece, Southeastern. Following Isbell’s 2012 rehab stint, he emerged clear eyed and focused with a work of art borne out of a period of life he compares to a “dungeon.” And this liberated perspective sustains Southeastern though some of its bleaker moments. I still contend that album opener “Cover Me Up” is the most romantic song I’ve ever heard. And “Traveling Alone” sounds like the fog lifting. When the album closes with the line “My lonely heart beats relatively easy”, you find yourself hoping it’s one of those autobiographical lines.
Even though Isbell cut his teeth as part of an alt-country Southern rock troupe, his artistry embodies the new sound of Nashville’s indie country scene. That’s the not-so-subtle message of his newest album title, “The Nashville Sound.” After sweeping the Americana Music Awards with his past two solo recordings, Isbell has returned with his backing band, the 400 Unit. In fact, “Americana” may be a truer label for Isbell than “country”, given the amped up sound on several of the album’s tracks. But Isbell largely stays in the narrative-driven roots-country lane he’s been in for the past five years. I dare you not to get a little misty-eyed when listening to “If We Were Vampires.”
Just don’t expect to hear anything so heartfelt or affecting on mainstream country airwaves.