Given Jason Isbell’s frightening talent for writing songs that make grown people weep, it is sometimes overlooked that he and his longtime band the 400 Unit are also wickedly skilled musicians whose live shows range from hushed intimacy to epic rock grandeur. Those chops are foregrounded on Georgia Blue, an all-covers collection that Isbell teased as possibility on Election Day 2020 if the Peach State flipped in favor of Democrats. So it did, and so he has, with proceeds from the album going to a handful of voting rights initiatives.
All of the songs here were originally recorded by artists with ties to Georgia, ranging from Southern rock jams and R&B classics to semi-obscure folk tunes and college rock favorites. Perhaps wisely, Isbell and company steer away from Atlanta-area rap entirely because, as he points out in the liner notes, “I would love to cover Outkast and 2 Chainz, but I don’t think the finished product would be very good.” He makes up for it with a top-notch guest list that includes Brandi Carlile, Brittney Spencer, and Adia Victoria along with 400 Unit members Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden.
The results are good to great, with two R.E.M. songs bookending the project. Banjo wizard Béla Fleck and mandolin ace Chris Thile chip in to recreate the intricate, yearning strains of “Nightswimming” on their instruments, while John Paul White helps out on a folk-rock arrangement of “Driver 8.” Isbell also stretches himself vocally, turning in a stirring country-soul take on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and growling his way through the Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation” with OG Crowes drummer Steve Gorman sitting in. His finest moment comes on the intense, urgent version of the late Vic Chesnutt’s “I’m Through,” delivered with such feeling you’d swear he wrote it.
Other highlights include Isbell’s wife and bandmate Shires leading a droning art-rock cover of Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style,” Victoria’s quietly soulful interpretation of Precious Bryant’s “The Truth,” and Spencer’s star vocal performance on Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” In the album’s most thrilling combination of talents, Julien Baker and Brandi Carlile sing circles around one another in a stunning, haunting rendition of Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears.”
Near the close of Georgia Blue, Isbell joins up with keyboard player Peter Levin (formerly of the Gregg Allman Band) to re-create the Allman Brothers Band’s sprawling instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” It’s funky and fluid, with guitarists Isbell and Vaden matching Levin’s superlative organ fills for 12 full minutes of riffing. Isbell’s albums rightly tend to put the focus on his songwriting, making them feel like very serious ordeals, so it’s nice to be reminded on Georgia Blue that he and his mates can still let their hair down and have fun.