“There’s a lot of good music to listen to from 1963 to 1983,” Jason Isbell said on stage Friday night, thanking the crowd for giving his music a chance on the opening night of his four-night run at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “For me to take that stuff off the record player and listen to some punk redneck hillbilly kid from Alabama would take a lot.”
Humility aside, Isbell performed in the historic venue less as a newly-minted star and more as a seasoned hometown hero, having now headlined the Ryman three years in a row (and counting) with his longtime backing band the 400 Unit.
Playing his first proper hometown show since the July release of Something More Than Free, Isbell’s latest material comprised a large portion of his two-plus hour show, with new songs like “Life You Chose” and “Speed Trap Town” sparkling in their fresh live arrangements. Isbell’s set, which included a rare encore cover of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Sway,” was as tightly focused as ever, from the early one-two military punch of “Tour of Duty” and “Dress Blues” to the poignant main set-closing familial segue of “Outfit” into “Children of Children.”
It was a night of multiple standing ovations and loving adoration for the 36-year-old singer. All four nights of Isbell’s Ryman residency sold out in mere minutes when tickets went on sale back in April, causing a six-month long frenzy of scalping that Isbell addressed on stage when he ensured fans that he’s working on a system to prevent those “assholes” from procuring all the tickets in the future.
Despite being just a couple years old, Southeastern highlights like “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up” were received as tried-and-true classics, with Isbell joking of the latter, “If it’d been a bad song, she [Amanda Shires] may not be my wife today. She’s pretty picky about such things.”
Shires herself began the evening with a commanding opening set of her own. Drawing primarily from her 2013 record Down Fell the Doves, she sang captivating renditions of songs like “Swimmer…” and “Look Like a Bird,” but the clear highlight of her 45-minute performance was the live debut of a haunting new ballad from her forthcoming 2016 record about the blurry definitions of cheating on one’s spouse. Two songs later, Shires had Isbell join her on guitar for her last song, a new tune about long-distance love. “You are my home,” she sang, perfectly summing up the couple’s relationship with the Mother Church of Country Music.