NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell kicked off his residency Dec. 5 at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum.
The first of three intimate performances hosted in the museum’s CMA Theater featured Americana star and Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires. Isbell will continue his sold-out residency 7 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19 with unique performances.
From the current Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album, The Nashville Sound, comes “Something to Love” a beautiful ode of hope directed to Isbell and Shire’s daughter, two-year-old Mercy Rose. The song begins with Isbell describing relaxed family scenes from his rural Alabama upbringing, then acknowledges that his daughter was born into a faster-paced, chaotic world, in which she will face different challenges. The lyrics offer gentle encouragement, with Isbell suggesting his daughter focus on what she loves about life and, in hard times, that she lean on the pleasure and sustenance she gets from doing what she most enjoys.
Isbell quipped early in the program that he doesn’t write happy songs. But as “Something to Love” ended, he acknowledged that the theme is uplifting—and about as happy as his verses are likely to get.
The most heralded song from The Nashville Sound album, “If We Were Vampires” takes a dark idea—that one partner in a couple will outlive the other—and turns it into a philosophical treatise about how the couple should make the most of what time they do have. Knowing life has an expiration date, Isbell suggests, should inspire the partners to show more tenderness, to hold hands more often and to celebrate the gift of love while they can.
Without the support of the rest of the 400 Unit band, the intimate reading of the song, with Isbell and Shires looking at each other as they sang, heightened the song’s profound message.
On record and in performance, Isbell’s song about an important turning point in life benefits from the dramatic shifts in texture that his 400 Unit band lend the song. The band’s contributions accentuate the moments of introspection and pain, and then provide a glorious crescendo as the protagonist realizes that the loving relationship he has embraced gives him all the reason he needs to end his destructive habits and behavior.
Performed as a duet, the song’s drama comes from Isbell’s voice and Shires’ subtle fiddle shadings that slide from discordant to sweet and tender. The result was breathtaking. The performance illustrated that Isbell’s voice and musical arrangements are just as artful and important to his work as are his lyrics.
Isbell has won Grammys for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song. The Americana Music Association named him Artist of the Year in 2015 and has awarded him Album of the Year two times and Song of the Year honors three times. The Alabama native has recorded six albums under his own name and with his band, the 400 Unit. His latest, The Nashville Sound, is nominated for two Grammys, Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song (“If We Were Vampires”), and was nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s CMA Awards.
Established in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program honors a musical master who can be credited with contributing a large and significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. The artist-in-residence is invited to use the museum’s performance venues to create unique musical experiences. Isbell joins a prestigious group of past honorees that includes Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson and 2015 artist-in-residence Rosanne Cash.
The museum’s 2017 Artist-in-Residence series is supported by Carter Vintage Guitars. To learn more about the museum’s artist-in-residence program, visit www.countrymusichalloffame.org.