A lot of fans had their first introduction to Alabaman Jason Isbell in 2003, via the Drive-By Truckers' release of Decoration Day. Isbell had joined the band as a touring guitarist-vocalist two years before, accompanying his then-wife, DBT bassist Shonna Tucker, on the road to support the band's critical breakthrough, Southern Rock Opera, which was recorded without him.
Isbell emerged on Decoration Day as not just a hired gun, but a songwriter every bit as formidable as DBT's founding force, Patterson Hood. The album's title track, a taut bit of Southern gothicism about an intergenerational family feud, and a second Isbell contribution called "Outfit" announced the new guy as an earnestly barbed chronicler of Southern mores, and a straightforward counterweight to Hood's vein of grad-school intellectualism.
It was the more immediately personal "Outfit" that really stood out, with a lyric in the voice of a father speaking to his son, an aching litany of hard-won advice from a man who's settled to a boy who might not have to: You want to grow up to paint houses like me / a trailer in my yard till you're 23 / you want to be old after 42 years / keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.
It's been 15 busy years since Isbell wrote that, and in the meantime he recorded two more albums with the Truckers, left the band (in 2007), recorded three solo albums and another three billed with his band, the 400 Unit, moved to Nashville, got sober, married musician Amanda Shires (in 2013), had a child (in 2015) and won two Grammys (for the album Something More Than Free in 2016).
And in June, Isbell and the 400 Unit released The Nashville Sound, which, like Something More Than Free, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart.
The Nashville Sound somehow seems to encompass that entire history, even as it flags some sonic and lyric paths forward. "Something to Love" is an obvious bookend to "Outfit," with Isbell now wearing the parental shoes (You were born on a hot late summer day / We turned you loose and tried to stay out of your way / Don't quite recognize the world you call home / Just find what makes you happy girl and do it 'til you're gone), and the bluesy dirge of "White Man's World" digs deeper into the landscape of a daughter's future and a wife's present, even as it acknowledges Isbell's male and white privilege with a directness you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on Billboard's Top Country chart.
- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released The Nashville Sound in June.
"Molotov" is a look back at the aftermath of Isbell's cocaine-and-Jack Daniel's days, with another automotive echo of "Outfit": I broke a promise to myself / To ride the throttle 'til' the wheels came off / Burn out like a Molotov. And the coal-country epitaph "Cumberland Gap" would have been right at home on Decoration Day.
The strummy and borderline twee "Chaos and Clothes," on the other hand, sounds like nothing from Isbell's back pages so much as a Father John Misty outtake, and maybe Isbell's bid to smudge the lines defining the country-rock territory he's already claimed.
But it's "If We Were Vampires," probably the album's prettiest gut-punch of a song, that best locates Isbell in his present moment. And it's entirely in line with Isbell's sensibility, simultaneously flint-eyed and sentimental, that it's about anticipating loss even in the heart of happiness:
It's knowing that this can't go on forever / Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we'll get forty years together / But one day I'll be gone / Or one day you'll be gone ... Maybe time running out is a gift / I'll work hard 'til the end of my shift / And give you every second I can find / And hope it isn't me who's left behind.
You don't have to be in love to hear the hurt and the hope in that. But you sure have to be in love with life to write it.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play the Wilma Sat., Sept. 9 at 8 PM. Sold out.