It’s an interesting experience meeting up with artists. Very often we record an interview a few weeks before we get a chance to broadcast it. The old AC vault even now has interviews in the can we’ve not yet put out on the airwaves. So it was with interest I listened back recently to two (fairly long) conversations I had with Jason Isbell from last year and 2014.
Perhaps it’s what happened in between the two interviews that interests us the most. In that short time Jason went from a much admired Americana artist to someone who could credibly be perceived as the ‘keeper of the flame.’ If, like me, you are a little uncomfortable with the catch-all terminology of Americana as a sub category of modern rock, allow me to unpack it here a little. In Jason’s case it’s wholly applicable for a number of reasons. For one thing he’s distilled the roots/alt country music of his own Alabama background into something which identifies wholly with the ordinary working person; songs about real life which, it seems, no longer interest the mainstream country singers emerging from Music Row. In contrast to their self-adulatory obsessions, Jason ‘s eye is caught by a different landscape. He wants to tell you stories about ‘the lights down in the lobby’ that ‘don’t shine and just flicker while the elevator whines.’ (Flagship) In his song Elephant it’s the final lines that pack the punch: ‘There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow.‘
You can hear both these songs on Jason’s current record, ‘Live From the Ryman’ where in this hallowed space you can hear the reverence and clear respect the Nashville audience have for this man and his excellent band. Seeing his progress to the point where he now lives his life at his own pace, as a husband and a young father and knowing what he has had to leave behind only increases my admiration for what Jason Isbell has achieved. But for one second let me return to that Americana riff. A few years ago when BB King died I remember seeing a tweet by Jason about how much they had learned from the man and how much of his music they had taken in and recycled in their own music. That, my radio friends, explains this clumsy Americana tag better than anything else. An artist whose ears and eyes are open to the roots of the music and is willing to absorb and pass on in new and fresh ways leaving room for his own influences to shine through…Americana..Jason style.
He’s won Grammys and Americana Awards and he’s had No 1 albums and a record run of shows at The Ryman. That’s not why we’re spending two hours in his company this week, however. We will celebrate Jason Isbell because he’s at the peak of his powers and he’s telling simple, but heart breaking stories of human struggle, disappointment, love and joy. Join us this Tuesday evening (and a repeat on Friday) for a very special celebration.
For my own part, I’m out on tour for a few weeks with my old road pals, Deacon Blue, so this will be the last blog until Christmas time. I’m leaving you with some very special Nashville conversations which you can enjoy for the next few weeks.