In my opinion, there is no better contemporary songwriter than Jason Isbell.
The former Drive-By Trucker has been inching his way towards this title since he released his first solo album, Isbell has always seemed like he was on the cusp of true greatness. But it hasn’t always been easy. He used to make stops at The State Room when he was in SLC, so bloated from hard-living and booze that he was dripping sweat by buckets towards the end of the set.
Luckily for Isbell and his fans, that’s not how his story ends. Aided by his now-wife and fiddle player Amanda Shires and friend Ryan Adams, Isbell got sober. And, in a rarity for artists of all kinds, the happiness of a family (he and Shires have a daughter) and the contentment of sobriety seems to have only made his music better—starting with Southeastern, his first album after his sea change and leading up to Nashville Sound, his most recent release—and best album to date. With Nashville Sound he has reached greatness.
Make no mistake, the Muscle Shoals native is one hell of a guitar player, and his band The 400 Unit gets better every time I see them (and I have seen them plenty)—but, lordy, as a southern woman, the fact that we are beginning to recognize a southern man who has things to say. AND we’re nominating him for CMA’s, despite the fact that he doesn’t not have a single song about pickup trucks or red solo cups in his catalog.
Call him the thinking man’s country music star. Isbell is an intellectual. Take this line from “Alabama Pines,” “The A/C hasn’t worked in 20 years, probably never made a single person cold, I can’t say the same for me. I’ve done it many times,” or in his most political work to date, White Man’s World—a song in which he owns his privilege—he says, “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes, wishing I’d never been one of the guys, who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke, oh the times ain’t forgotten.”
When I listen to Isbell lyrics, I’m reminded of what his friend Justin Townes Earle said in a New York Times profile, “You know, when I sit around and talk with Jason, he can sound, just as I can, like a dumb redneck. But put him on paper, or behind a guitar, and he can fly.”
Jason Isbell plays Red Butte on September 7. The show is sold out.