Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit just finished up another six-night residency at the Ryman Auditorium, the legendary Nashville venue best known as the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. For the second year in a row, the band overtook the Ryman for almost a week, this time commemorating the release of Live from the Ryman, recorded there this time last year. Plucking from Isbell’s three most recent studio albums,—the critically-lauded Southeastern, Something More Than Free and last year’s excellent The Nashville Sound—Live from the Ryman showcases an impassioned set highlighting the best of those records, and Isbell’s strong presence as not only a bandleader, but a band member.
It’s appropriate that Isbell should maintain this annual Ryman booking, as he’s been one of the most outspoken voices in country music for the better part of a decade now, and his yearly return to the holy ground solidifies his place as the genre’s progressive patriarch. Speaking of progression, third in the Ryman tracklisting is “White Man’s World,” Isbell’s take on white privilege that’s notorious for upsetting right-wing audience members in venues across his native Alabama and beyond. It’s one of the many instances of Isbell flaunting his political agency, action that has, at times, upset his conservative fanbase, but surely empowered many socially conscious listeners. We can’t be sure whether or not any onlookers fled this rendition of “White Man’s World,” a track from The Nashville Sound, but in the recording, you can only hear applause.
In addition to the louder, more rock-forward tracks like “White Man’s World,” Nashville Sound album opener “Cumberland Gap” and set opener “Hope the High Road,” the band also chooses some more tender offerings for this Ryman audience. Isbell croons two of his most emotional tracks, “Last of My Kind” and “Cover Me Up,” back-to-back before encoring with Southeastern stomper “Super 8” and existential love-song-duet “If We Were Vampires,” which he sings with his wife, fellow 400 Unit member and frequent songwriting partner (not to mention a fiercely talented artist on her own) Amanda Shires. Both “Cover Me Up” and “Vampires” were inspired by and/or written in conjunction with Shires, and are consistently the most compelling elements of an Isbell live show. On Live from the Ryman, they cut deep.
I can’t attest to the mood in the Ryman Auditorium on the night this was recorded, but last summer at Birmingham, Ala.’s Sloss Music & Arts Festival, Isbell commanded a near-silent crowd during “Cover Me Up,” gently singing, “So cover me up and know you’re enough.” As on this live record, both tears and applause (but mostly applause—loud, congratulatory whoops and hollers) abounded as he sang, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time,” referencing his past struggles with alcoholism. But Isbell sings the most tender, intimate moments loudly and from the belly, especially on this recording, making it a clenching story about life-changing, healing, love. When Shires joins in for the second half of this six-minute take, there’s almost a ceremonial feel to the song as marching drums kick in and her fiddle blazes. Usually when an artist sings a love song, it’s safe to assume his/her partner isn’t present. But when Isbell and Shires sing together, however, their love songs become all the more gripping.
Live from the Ryman is a testament to Isbell’s fantastic live show and a career-honoring exhibit of his affecting, enduring songbook. Isbell could have chosen any song he’s ever written for this show—from his time in the Drive-By Truckers to his solo work to his 400 Unit albums—but this particular setlist was thoughtfully curated to engage his devoted listenership, who, at this show, sang along to his lyrics in sublime, chill-inducing unison. This live record heedfully honors a legendary venue, beloved songwriter and an evolving South.
Watch a 2011 Jason Isbell concert via the Paste archives below: