“I was thinking today about how it feels to be an unhinged leftist,” quipped Jason Isbell two songs into a solo acoustic performance early Monday evening in Nashville, a short-notice but instantly sold-out rally for Democrat Tennessee senate candidate Phil Bredesen. Referencing shots fired earlier that day at left-leaning entertainers by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) — who, in an official statement, called out Isbell and co-headliner Ben Folds by name as members of the “unhinged left” — the outspoken country firebrand went on. “For the first time in my life I’m hinged. I quit drinking years ago, I got a three-year-old daughter… I’m hinged as hell!”
Obviously not one to suffer fools or ever mince words, Isbell’s sparse, concise set did the rest of the talking. His second pop-up show in three days — following a full-band outing with his 400 Unit ensemble at SunTrust Field in Atlanta on Saturday, moments after the noted baseball fan’s beloved Braves blew a late lead against the Colorado Rockies — its seven carefully selected, eloquent odes to fatigue, resilience and rebirth in America drove home the point that coming from the heartland doesn’t have to mean being intolerant.
“TVA,” one of two numbers that Isbell played by his previous band Drive-By Truckers (“Outfit” was the other), paid homage to the 39-year-old’s Northern Alabama upbringing and a measure enacted post-Great Depression to provide relief to flood-prone areas in the inland South. The set-closing “White Man’s World,” meanwhile — a head-on commentary on racism and classism off the 400 Unit’s 2017 tour de force The Nashville Sound — hit hardest lyrically. (It can’t have been lost on many Music City locals that the venue for this show, Marathon Music Works, sits less than five blocks from where an officer-involved shooting that claimed the life of 25-year-old Daniel Hambrick took place just last month.)
A testament to Isbell’s mastery of tackling tough subjects in a cogent, relatable way, practically each lyric from “White Man’s World” elicited cheers of affirmation from the mid-30s/early-40s-leaning audience, none more than its final couplet. “I think the man upstairs must have took a vacation,” Isbell sang, sighing deeply as he glanced at the ceiling. “I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
I’ve been in the paper a few times now, but this one is my favorite. This is one I’ll be proud to show my grandkids. https://t.co/rUhhalbmfE
— Jasoñ Isbell (@JasonIsbell) August 20, 2018
The NRSC statement slammed Folds for his past support of Bernie Sanders and criticized Isbell for a comment he made to Rolling Stone last year regarding Trump voters.
“I could see how a lot of conservative right-wing Christian Americans would vote for someone like Mitt Romney, who seems like a stand-up guy,” Isbell said. “But Trump is obviously not a good Christian person. I think the fact that so many people voted for him means that there aren’t that many good Christian people left in rural America. God is gone from those people.”
“Jason Isbell is a champion for working men and women,” a campaign spokesperson for Bredesen told the Tennessean.
Isbell acknowledged the statement on Twitter as well as onstage. “I’ve been in the paper a few times now, but this one is my favorite,” he tweeted earlier Monday, reacting to a Tennessean report on the Committee’s remarks. “This is one I’ll be proud to show my grandkids.”