Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
1201 East Market Street
Akron, OH, 44305
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
This event is all ages
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new album, The Nashville Sound, is a beautiful piece of American music- making, but watch yourself: it will light a fire under your ass. “You’re still breathing, it’s not too late,” Jason sings.
This album is a call, and the songs on it send sparks flying into a culture that’s already running so hot the needle on the temperature gauge is bouncing erratically in the red. And while it’s understandable that, in this moment, some people want their radio to help them drift away, this finely calibrated set of ten songs is aimed right between the clear eyes of people who prefer to stay present and awake. It’s a call to those who won't cower no matter how erratically the world turns, and who aren’t afraid of what looks back when they look in the mirror. Bruce Springsteen did that. Neil Young did that. Jason Isbell does that.
There are songs on this album that cut to the chase. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know,” Isbell sings on the album’s first single, “Hope the High Road.” “But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch. I’ll meet you up here on the road.” As singular as that lyric is, there’s nothing coy or obtuse about it. Meanwhile, other songs here take a subtler tack.
Check out track three, “Tupelo.” It plays like a warm ode to Northeast Mississippi—on the first few listens, it sure sounds like a loving tribute—but on the fourth you realize that the town the protagonist is extolling is actually a blazing hellhole. Perfect—as a hideout, anyway. “You get about a week of spring and the summer is blistering,” Isbell sings. “There ain’t no one from here who will follow me there.” It’s the kind of twist that compels the fifth listen—and the fiftieth.
As with Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern, and his double-Grammy-winning follow up, 2015’s Something More Than Free, The Nashville Sound was produced by Dave Cobb. Isbell says that he and Cobb created a simple litmus test for the decisions they made in the two weeks they spent at RCA Studios (which was known as “The home of the Nashville Sound” back in the ’60’s and ’70s): they only made sonic moves that their heroes from back in the day could’ve made, but simply never did. It’s a shrewd approach—an honest way to keep the wiz-bang of modern recording technology at arms length, while also leaving the old bag of retro rock ’n’ roll tricks un-rummaged. Lyrically, The Nashville Sound is timely. Musically, it is timeless.
It’s also worth noting that this album isn’t credited to Isbell alone. For the first time since 2011’s Here We Rest, Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, gets title billing. “Even when I was writing, I could always hear the band’s stamp on the finished product,” Jason says. “These songs needed more collaboration on the arrangements to make them work, and I felt like the band deserved it after the way they played.” Given Cobb’s strict insistence on cutting songs live with no demos or rehearsals, you can easily imagine how the brilliantly raw performances on the record will translate to the stage when the band takes these new songs out on the road.
And boy, there’s nothing like a 400 Unit show. Not just because the band smokes, but also because Isbell’s fans are among music’s most ardent. They listen to these songs for months and months on their own, and that momentum rolls them right up to the doors at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, or the Beacon
Theatre in New York or the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. And when the band kicks in, they are ecstatic. It’s a rock ’n’ roll show that feels like fellowship.
Which begs a question: Why do Jason’s songs strike us so deeply? What makes this music of the soul? The answer has to do with Jason’s authenticity, his intellect, his rootedness in both tradition (see: the childhood in Green Hill, Alabama, near Muscle Shoals, where he grew up picking and singing in the style he remembers here on “Something To Love”) as well as modernity (see: Jason singing about anxiety, or his complicated relationship to his iPhone).
Simply put, Jason has a gift for taking big, messy human experiences and compressing them into badass little combustible packages made of rhythm, melody and madly efficient language. The songs are full of little hooks—it could be guitar line that catches one listener, or a quick lyric that strikes to the heart of another—and an act of transference takes place. The stories Jason tells become our own. The music is coming not from Jason and the band, but from within us.
As you listen to this record, you will hear many themes: humor, heartache, wisdom, beauty, hope. But chief among them, strangely, is leadership.
If Southeastern (2013) was the Getting Sober record (Jason has been searingly honest in both songs and interviews about the time he spent in rehab), and Something More Than Free (2015) was the New Clarity record, maybe this one, The Nashville Sound, is the Way Forward.
And who better to lead us forward than Jason Isbell? Jason is a relentless and fearless selfinterrogator. (The first line of “Cumberland Gap”—“There’s an answer here if I look hard enough”—will be familiar to those who know him.) And this album is a challenge, a gauntlet in song: Let’s claim ownership of our biases (“White Man’s World”). Let’s embrace and celebrate the uncomfortable idea that the force that activates both life and love is death (the instantclassic “If We Were Vampires”). Let’s consciously choose light over darkness (“Hope the High Road”). And for God’s sake, if you are feeling anxious, alone, disenfranchised, depressed, mad as hell, or scared as shit, find something that gasses you up and work at it (“Something to Love”). Jason, it seems, after years grinding the rail that separates terra firma from the brink, has put in the sweat equity it takes to hug it out with his demons and fill his life with meaning, bright and clean.
If that sounds good to you, this album lights the path.
Amanda Shires is not an entertainer. She isn't looking to help listeners escape their everyday lives or soundtrack celebrations. She isn't reaching for celebrity, and she isn't concerned with cultivating a personal brand. She is an artist in the true sense of the word, meaning she creates because she has a real need for the process of creating. That is not to say that the songs on My Piece Of Land aren't entertaining, but that quality is a by-product. The real intention here is to relate.
Ms. Shires began her career as a teenager playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys. Since then, she's toured and recorded with John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Todd Snider, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, and most recently her husband Jason Isbell. Along the way she's made three solo albums, each serving to document a particular period in her life while improving on the perceptive qualities of the previous record.
The songs on My Piece Of Land deal with family, with anxiety, with the phases of one young woman's life; but the primary focus of My Piece Of Land is the concept of home. Ms. Shires addresses the similarities and differences between the home she was born into, the two homes she was eventually split between, and the home she has finally made for herself. Some of these stories are from the creator's point of view and some most certainly are not. You'd be hard-pressed to identify which is which, though, considering the level of empathy involved in the creation of these stories. "The concept of home, like the concept of love, is more complex than it seems," says Ms. Shires. "You start out with this inherited idea of home, but as you grow you realize that's only a suggestion. You have to use that along with all the little pieces of wisdom you've picked up along the way to finally build your own place in the world." Ms. Shires sometimes describes songwriting as "solving the puzzles," but before the songwriter even begins to arrange rhymes and melodies, she must first be acquainted with the complicated workings of the heart.
Most of this album was written after Ms. Shires had reached the seven-month point in a summertime pregnancy, and was no longer able to travel. For a woman used to touring most of the year, being stuck inside brought challenges and offered creative rewards. "Pregnancy does weird things to you," Amanda says. "You walk around holding your arms over your belly, sometimes almost overcome by anxiety. I constantly wondered if I would be able to protect this child, if my marriage would last forever, if I'd learned enough about the world to be a good mother. At the same time, you're so excited, so hopeful, and so severely physically limited." About how the setting affected the finished product, she says "This record turned out to be a personal record, set in our home where I had lots of time for reflection and time to face my concerns and
fears." The listener can hear Ms. Shires unpacking those anxieties in a song like "Slippin,'" with its ruminations on what could go wrong in a relationship that seems stable.
There'll be a trigger, then up starts the fire, a handful of matches some faulty wiring.
You'll say you have this hollow feeling. Something's always been missing. Tonight could be the night you go slippin' away from me.
Her piece of land is one with a panoramic view, and she pays close attention to even the smallest details. Take, for instance, the first stanza of "Harmless."
A phased golden light rained down from the streetlight. It fell across your shoulder, paused just above your collar.
With this description of one fleeting moment, the writer sets an entire scene. Ms. Shires would argue that the term "poet" should not be used to mean "unusually perceptive songwriter," since the roles of modern songwriter and poet are so very different. However, it isn't hard to understand how her post-graduate education in poetry helps Ms. Shires choose which details to include. "It's all about precision. My time in the MFA (Master Of Fine Arts) program at Sewanee taught me a lot about different ways of writing and how they all have one thing in common: the better you are at editing, the better your work will be. Spending long hours workshopping poems and reading the classics gave me a solid standard when it came time to edit my songs."
Ms. Shires recorded My Piece Of Land under the guidance of brilliant Nashville producer Dave Cobb at his Low Country Sound studio. Inviting Cobb to produce My Piece Of Land was an easy decision to make, considering Ms. Shires had worked with him before on Jason Isbell's albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free. Ms. Shires knew of Dave's propensity toward arranging the songs in-studio, rather than rehearsing or making demos beforehand. Cobb believes in the spontaneity of early takes, and with the proficient rhythm section of Paul Slivka and Paul Griffith, the studio band was able to record the album in a relatively short amount of time without sacrificing performance quality. This approach gives each song on the album emotional urgency along with a groove that's loose and effortless.
Among other things, "Pale Fire" is about consciously shifting one's own priorities. There are two types of lovers: the kind we need and the kind we want. The hard part is finding someone who represents both. "You Are My Home" is written as a gift, a token of appreciation to someone who has helped the narrator define her place in the world. "Mineral Wells" is a song Ms. Shires wrote many years ago, after relocating to Nashville from her childhood home in Texas. It speaks to the part of us that never really leaves that original homeplace.
With My Piece Of Land, you get the sense that Amanda Shires has reached a personal pinnacle. This album is the creative milestone suited to accompany the recent milestones in her life: becoming a mother, developing into a true artist, and finally finding a home.