Country Music

Jason Isbell Emerges as the Conscience of the South on The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell (second from right) and the 400 Unit's new songs will feel immediately familiar and may hit a little too close to home.
Jason Isbell (second from right) and the 400 Unit's new songs will feel immediately familiar and may hit a little too close to home. Photo by Danny Clinch/Courtesy of All Eyes Media
When Jason Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free was released, the artist was in an obvious place of gratitude. After battling addiction, settling down with the love of his life, and having a child, Isbell’s time for happiness had come, and that joy was sonically and lyrically evident on the record. Two years later, though, Isbell has returned with The Nashville Sound, an album that flawlessly weaves the gut-wrenching, painful songs that he is so good at writing into a more measured perspective on the present.

The title of the album, a reference to the lush ‘60s-era production from Nashville’s RCA Studio A, also serves as an indictment of present-day Nashville. As much as Isbell has refused to consider himself a part of what currently exists as country music, he is now, willingly or unwillingly, settling into his role as the torchbearer of a new, more progressive Nashville sound. More importantly than that, he’s settling into himself as a solo artist.

More sonically diverse than either 2013's critically acclaimed Southeastern or Something More Than Free, there are heavy moments, quiet moments, and rowdy moments on The Nashville Sound. Once again, Isbell’s partnership with Dave Cobb has produced what will be one of the best-sounding country albums of the year. It doesn’t seem like songs like “Tupelo” and “Clothes & Chaos” belong on the same record, but they ultimately do. More than anything else, it feels like Isbell is starting to get an itch to move into harder, more experimental territory.

Where The Nashville Sound really triumphs, though, is in its lyricism. By now, anyone who listens to Jason Isbell knows that he is a damn fine poet, capable of ripping a heart out in one song and tenderly sewing the pieces back together on the next. “If We Were Vampires” is, at its core, a love song. But it is really more of a devastatingly sad meditation on the fact that no love can outlast death, and that is a very fundamentally Isbell kind of song. Beautiful, sad, and just true as hell all at the same time, it can be a little hard to listen to.

The same could be said for “Anxiety,” a song that the neurotic among us can surely identify with. The tense build in the beginning is sort of a guitar-driven panic attack, existing to sort of replicate the misery of chronic anxiety. There’s an innate sort of sadness in the fact that a man who has overcome addiction, found love and career success, and had a child is still too anxious to just soak it all in. For millions of people, country fans and otherwise, Isbell’s worries and fears will feel immediately familiar, and may hit just a little too close. And perhaps some of that anxiety is, like for the rest of us, induced by the current sociopolitical climate, which Isbell both obliquely and directly addresses on The Nashville Sound.

Just like his former band, Drive-By Truckers, Isbell makes pointed statements on this record that stand in stark contrast to the general unwillingness of many Americana and country artists (with some very notable exceptions, like Steve Earle) to address issues that may alienate a predominantly white, significantly male audience. Isbell knows that he is, as he says, a white man living in a white man’s world. He acknowledges his own culpability in letting racism stand, that his home is built on land stolen from Native Americans, and that the bucolic rows of cotton he sees on the country’s highways have a hateful, murderous legacy. It is, perhaps, not a surprise that Isbell would write a song like this after becoming a father. Who would want his or her child to live in a world that flatly refuses to be better?

Further, “White Man’s World” is also pointed at Nashville. When Isbell sings, “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they’re never gonna let her,” followed by that flawless fiddle riff from his wife, Amanda Shires, it’s a pretty obvious criticism of the fact that Shires, who is just as talented as Isbell, has not ascended to the same heights as he has. There is no real hostility here, and Isbell doesn’t resign himself to the status quo — he’s just humbly asking for the world to be a little bit better, more equitable place, please and thank you very much.

On “Hope the High Road,” Isbell confronts political polarization and fatigue in the post-Trump era. It’s the kind of song that sounds as if it were written just after Inauguration Day, as everyone in the country licked their battle scars from the 2016 election. It’s a message of hope born out of the exasperation that comes with seeing Trump’s near-daily assaults on marginalized groups and the truth. “We’ll ride the ship down throwing buckets overboard,” he sings on the chorus. “There can’t be more of them than us.”

And sure, there are nits to pick with this album. It does feel a little brief, and perhaps could have been rounded out by another song or two — perhaps a duet between Shires and Isbell?

That’s a pretty powerful statement, especially as the country grows more and more polarized by the day. Hate crimes are on the rise, mass shootings happen on what is just about a daily basis, and Lord knows what’s going on in Washington. Believing that there can’t be more of “them,” meaning hateful people who like to be hateful to others based on what they look like or who they love, than “us,” or actual decent human beings, is at this point peak hopefulness.

More than that, though, alongside albums like the Truckers’ American Band, Isbell and his contemporaries are forging a new Southern identity. On The Nashville Sound, Isbell solidifies his place as the conscience of the South, quietly urging a revamp of an identity that has too long been associated with bigotry and close-mindedness. There’s no bravado or rage or anger here, just a well-articulated, beautifully produced argument that we all can, and should, do better.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.