Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Published on June 21st, 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit | Credit Danny Clinch

Guitarist Jason Isbell dug his boots deep into Tennessee soil when he moved to Nashville five years ago, swapping the city’s mainstream country leanings for his own bold, soul-stirring Americana, and in the process changing how Nashville-born music should sound. 

Isbell’s preoccupation with Nashville continues on his sixth album, “The Nashville Sound,” recorded in and named after the same RCA studio that saw recordings from legendary guitarist Chet Atkins. But beyond the esteem he confers his adopted music town (Isbell grew up in rural Alabama), Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, these days appear more concerned with his meteoric rise in Southern music and all the responsibility that it entails. For “The Nashville Sound,” the singer has gained hard-rock muscle along with his twang, releasing 10 new tracks as much about the personal (themes of parenthood, mortality, home and hearth) as they are about the country. 

A two-time Grammy winner (his 2015 album, “Something More Than Free,” also shot high up Billboard’s folk, country and rock charts), Isbell can twist a lyric into a heart-wrenching meditation on the crumbling of the American dream. He does so with the album’s opener, “Last of My Kind,” a sparse, acoustic reminiscence of bygone years in which Isbell mourns, “Daddy said the river would always lead me home/but the river can’t take me back in time/and Daddy’s dead and gone.” The jittery single “Cumberland Gap,” meanwhile, showcases those combustive rock leanings, while in the blues-slathered “White Man’s World,” he appears to confront his Southern legacy, quoting from the Confederate anthem “Dixie” (“Old times ain’t forgotten) to opine on the scars of racism and Trump-era cultural privilege. 

It’s all sobering material for Isbell, but he doesn’t let it dominate personal strife on “The Nashville Sound,” and late-album folk ditty “Anxiety” is one example of a no-frills anthem stuffed with apprehension, mainly about Nashville itself. “I’m out here living in a fantasy/I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing,” he wails about finding success in the epicenter of American country. Isbell may reside in Nashville with his wife, singer-violinist Amanda Shires and their daughter Mercy Rose, but his roots are everywhere.   

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with opener Strand of Oaks, will perform 8 pm Friday, July 21, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., in Miami Beach. $30-$53. 305.673.7300, JasonIsbell.com and FillmoreMB.com.
~ John Doane

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