Earlier this year, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum announced Jason Isbell as its 2017 Artist-in-Residence. An honor established in 2003, previous Artists in Residence include Guy Clark and Vince Gill, with the most recent being Rosanne Cash in 2015. As part of the designation, Isbell gave three intimate concerts at the Hall's CMA Theater this month.
The first was an evening with wife Amanda Shires, while the second found Isbell performing an acoustic set with his band the 400 Unit. Rolling Stone Country caught the final performance on Tuesday, intriguingly billed as "Jason Isbell and Special Guests."
The room aglow with Christmas lights, there was a palpable excitement in the air as writer and historian Peter Cooper stepped onstage to introduce Isbell, saying, "Nashville is a place with songs to sing and tales to tell, and our singers and tale-tellers form a community unlike any other ... Tonight, the ballsy Jason Isbell serves as community organizer."
Isbell opened his set with Here We Rest favorite "Alabama Pines," strumming his acoustic guitar with accompaniment from Shires, who would join him for the entirety of the evening. After finishing the tune, Isbell quipped, "If you ever get lost, that song's got a lot of directions in it." While many of Isbell's songs are light on humor, he's a bit of a cut-up in person, particularly when Shires is onstage. The pair bantered throughout the evening, with Shires at one point playfully correcting his pronunciation of the word "voracious."
After playing Something More Than Free cut "24 Frames," Isbell invited his first guest on stage. CMA Award-winning musician Mac McAnally joined Isbell on the 2003 Drive-By Truckers Decoration Day track "Outfit," before playing his own "All These Years," which Isbell introduced as "the greatest cheatin' song ever written." As would be the case for the entire show, it was hard to tell which artist was in more awe of the other.
Between mini-sets by their surprise guests, Isbell and Shires punctuated the show with intimate performances as a duo. Among the songs they played together, a haunting version of the politically charged track "White Man's World" from The Nashville Sound and a particularly moving take on Southeastern standout "Cover Me Up" – which Isbell told the audience was the first song he ever wrote for Shires – were highlights.
An impressive lineup of guests kept appearing to perform. Early in the night, Jerry Douglas lent masterful Dobro flourishes to Something More Than Free's "Children of Children" and the album's title track. Buddy Miller sang harmony and offered intricate guitar work on the Southeastern song "Traveling Alone," before being joined by Emmylou Harris for a stunning take on the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant classic "Love Hurts."
Isbell and Shires were eventually joined by Americana heroes David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. The foursome performed three songs together, with a highlight being a harmony-drenched version of The Nashville Sound closer "Something to Love" that made the case that the power couples should team up for a collaborative album.
For their encore, Isbell and Shires returned to play The Nashville Sound's "If We Were Vampires," a stirring meditation on life and love that earned Isbell a Best American Roots Song nod at the 60th annual Grammy Awards. While you could hear a pin drop in the room during the performance, rapturous applause broke out when Isbell invited all of the night's guests back for a lushly arranged take on Neil Young's Harvest Moon cut "Unknown Legend."
While not the typical rousing show-closer one would expect to hear from such a star-studded lineup, it was a fitting end to a night that celebrated the power of song. Isbell's own catalog is filled with vivid compositions that swear off any obvious genre allegiances, and his Hall of Fame residency was a fine example of why the Alabama native is beloved by fans of rock, folk and country alike.