By Cameron Lee
September 24, 2018
Jason Isbell’s music speaks for the common people. His candid songs tell stories that articulate his humble beginnings in Alabama. While he grew up under the tutelage of revered musicians like David Hood (father of Drive-by Truckers founder Patterson Hood), Isbell has yet to allow his success to alter his voice and music, which includes a six-year stint as a guitarist and songwriter for the Drive-by Truckers, and now his own band the 400 Unit.
The beginning of autumn brought mild temperatures as the slight humidity quickly turned into a crisp night with a bright moon at Charlotte’s Uptown Amphitheatre for the city’s first major outdoor concert of the fall. “What a beautiful evening, under a beautiful moon, look at that moon up there,” Isbell exclaimed as he strummed the first notes to “Hope The High Road.”
But before Isbell and his band the 400 Unit hit the stage, friend and collaborator, Raleigh’s BJ Barham and his band American Aquarium charmed the audience with his melodically gruff voice and alternative country sounds. Isbell has been a bit of mentor for the singer-songwriter as their acclaimed 2012 album Burn. Flicker. Die was produced by Isbell in Muscle Shoals. “Who wouldn’t want to overcome your demons, get married, have a kid, and win a couple Grammys along the way?” Barham stated in an interview with Rolling Stone when asked about Isbell.
Now sober for four years, and married, Barham is in a calmer place. He’s yet to win a Grammy, but the band’s latest album Things Change with a revamped band has a wholeness to it that is award worthy in the genre. Deciding what genre that is might be the tricky part as their sound floats in a country-Americana-rock arena. Barham told light-hearted jokes in between songs and the band sounded tighter than ever.
“I’m Jason Isbell we’re the 400 Unit from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It’s a joy to be back in Charlotte. We hope you have a great time this evening,” said Isbell as the band prepared to perform for the semi-rowdy and anxious crowd. Isbell and 400 Unit’s latest album Nashville Sound, produced by renowned country music and Americana record producer Dave Cobb, won the Grammy for Best Americana Album. The accomplishment was celebrated modestly with chili dogs after the ceremony with his wife (and accomplished musician) Amanda Shires.
Isbell’s music hits home for those who choose to live a simple life but are conscious of complexities of our society. Much like Springsteen may affect the working man in New Jersey, Isbell’s music impacts the Southern minded. In “White Man’s World” he tackles issues of inequality in race and gender: “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war / Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for / If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late / We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” Examining the white man’s role in the struggle for equality for others, Isbell’s mindfulness on heavy subject matter is always easy to digest, because you simply believe it.
In the song “Cumberland Gap,” he describes the psyche of a coal miner contemplating more than life in a small town. The song was inspired years ago when he observed a man in a rural city in Kentucky sitting on a curb drinking a beer drenched in coal and gazing at the can in wonderment after the city had just gone wet. His voice pierced through the cool wind that blew through the amphitheatre throughout the night. The drums popped and the guitar shimmered loud as the energy quickly turned into a full-on rock show. “I ain’t cut out for war, unless I know what I’m fighting for / And there’s nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores…….Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole.” The melodic simplicity of songs like the popular “Tupelo” had the audience swaying blissfully in the tranquil night.
Perhaps Isbell’s best gift is perspective. His ability to tell stories and express the point of view of the small town southern lifestyle is relatable to all who tune in. A week after Hurricane Florence bombarded the Carolinas with torrential rain and flooding, Isbell and his band the 400 Unit provided that much needed perspective and solace.
Check out the remaining 2018 tour dates for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
“Hope The High Road”
“Something More Than Free”
“White Man’s World”
“Goddamn Lonely Love”
“How to Forget”
“Last of My Kind”
“Flying Over Water”
“Cover Me Up”
“Never Gonna Change”
“If We Were Vampires”