September 1, 2015 by Jay Minkin
People ask me “What is Americana?” It happens all the time. It’s an ocean of music stretching coast-to-coast and around the world. There are many significant notches on the roots music timeline which snowballed into this genre. What it birthed are the poets of our generation. The one’s carrying the torch. These singer/songwriters are trying to survive the TMZ and pre-programed music being fed to the masses. There are many followers of Americana music and many can be found at … yes, record stores where vinyl has returned as the format of choice leaving compact discs in the vintage pile with 8 Track tapes. So how do I answer the question? Usually my response is “Have you heard of Jason Isbell?”
Jason Isbell along with his wife Amanda Shires reside in Nashville and have been dubbed “The Royal Family” of Americana music. I have been writing my column since 2007 and have annually selected one record release as my Album of the Year. Jason Isbell won as the dark horse in 2009 with Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit and again in 2013 with his brilliant Southeastern. Sandwiched in-between those two was another great album called Here We Rest in 2009. The former member of The Drive-By Truckers had somewhat been in the shadows of primary songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley during his five years in the band and departed the DBT’s in 2007. Up until the recording of Southeastern, Isbell had battled booze and cocaine addiction from the party life on the road. His future wife Shires was the catalyst to get him to turn his life around with an intervention which included manager Traci Thomas from Thirty Tigers and Ryan Adams, another major songwriter who carries the Americana flag. The couple married in 2013 and had a banner year which included the release of Shires Down Fell The Doves. Rumor has it the couple had to build a bigger mantle to hold all the hardware and awards received for both critically acclaimed releases.
So the most anticipated release of 2015 was Isbell’s fourth titled Something More Than Free, a two disc eleven song album that once again puts the songwriter in the center spotlight. Featuring his backing band The 400 Unit of Sadler Vaden (guitar), Derry DeBorja (keyboards), and Chad Gamble (drums) along with Shires (fiddle), Isbell (guitar) delivers a masterful collection of stories set to music. Produced by Dave Cobb and recorded at Sound Emporium Studio in Nashville, side one kicks off with the country picker “If It Takes A Lifetime”. The radio single “24 Frames” put the album #1 on Billboard’s Country Music charts soon after its July release. To describe Isbell’s music, listen to the troubadour’s song “Flagship” and how he paints a canvas with a Martin acoustic guitar and Shure microphone. The beautiful “How To Forget” will play in your head for hours while “Children of Children” closes out the first disc with a dreamy jam. The second disc has “The Life You Chose” picking up where the first one ended. The title track blends some beautiful fills from Shires as Isbell sings Every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt/But thank God for the work. “Speed Trap Town” is a gorgeous acoustic number with an electric touch while “Palmetto Rose” is a juke joint blues burner. Closing things out is “To A Band That I Loved” pays homage to his former band brothers where Isbell began his musical journey at age 22.
With the bar set so high, it’s hard for any artist to compete with his own catalog let alone his contemporaries. Isbell doesn’t disappoint as the more you absorb the songs on Something More Than Free, the listener will treasure the tracks found within the album. So if you’re looking to define Americana, look to Jason Isbell, an artist who is becoming one of the great songwriters in contemporary music.
Dedicated to Jason & Amanda Isbell upon the birth of their daughter September 1, 2015