Jason Isbell has spent a good deal of 2019 focusing less on his Grammy-winning songwriting and more on the instrument that enabled his rise from Muscle Shoals to Music City — his guitar.
Isbell, whose six-string skills helped define a trio of Drive-By Truckers albums before he found solo success, has recently played sideman to country supergroup the Highwomen and backed Sheryl Crow on her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken.”
While logging road miles with his backing band the 400 Unit this summer, he worked bluesy guitar bends into the new song “Overseas,” and pulled off show-stopping solos on the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac jam “Oh Well.” There’s also his near-nightly fretboard duels with 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden on the Truckers classic “Never Gonna Change.”
So it’s entirely fitting that the openers for Isbell’s seven-show 2019 residency at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, kicking off Friday and running through October 26th, reflect his love of guitar and the blues.
“The first music that ever really moved me was Delta blues,” Isbell told Guitar Player in a 2015 interview.
As a kid, Isbell pored over a dubbed cassette of Robert Johnson songs that his grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher, deemed appropriate for the young player. His picks for the 2019 Ryman shows reveal an appreciation for the music of his roots, with gospel from the Blind Boys of Alabama, Delta blues from Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Bentonia blues from Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
A three-night focus on Mississippi Hill Country blues — the raw, hypnotic style perfected by Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough in back-roads jukes across rural north Mississippi — includes performances from North Mississippi Allstars, R.L. Boyce, and Shardé Thomas.
Amanda Shires will kick off the run of shows on October 18th, but then the Mother Church of Country Music gets six nights of schooling on another side of Americana roots music. Here’s what you need to know about them all.
Shardé Thomas (October 19th)
The legacy of fife-and-drum master Otha Turner, whose African rhythms and chirping melodies influenced two generations of North Mississippi blues musicians, lives on through his granddaughter. Shardé Thomas has toured and recorded with artists like North Mississippi Allstars, lending her vocal and fife chops to Luther and Cody Dickinson’s seasoned country-blues stomp. She also carries on Turner’s tradition by leading the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.
R.L. Boyce (October 20th)
R.L. Boyce may not be the first bluesman you think of when you read the initials R.L., or even the first Hill Country bluesman who comes to mind. But as a direct link to giants like R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell, he’s earned the right to use them. Originally a drummer who learned from his uncle Otha (yes, the same Otha) and backed Jessie Mae Hemphill, Boyce developed his loose, off-the-cuff style playing with McDowell and Burnside. He’s collaborated with Luther Dickinson since recording his debut, Ain’t the Man’s Alright [Sutro Park], in 2007 at age 52.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (October 22nd)
Hailing from Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the fabled crossroads, Kingfish learned from blues musicians who lived next door, and then through an educational program at the Delta Blues Museum. But there’s nothing clinical in his approach to the blues. Although he’s the most traditional Delta blues artist on the lineup, when he steps away from the mic he unleashes a fury that’s as much Jimi Hendrix as Buddy Guy — his latest mentor and fan. He released his debut, Kingfish [Alligator], earlier this year and has toured with Guy and Vampire Weekend.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes (October 23rd)
You can often find Jimmy “Duck” Holmes at the Blue Front Café, his cinderblock juke joint in Bentonia, Mississippi. Holmes still plays guitar in what became known as the Bentonia style after native son Skip James, who lent his south Delta songs a darker tone by tuning to E minor. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys recorded Holmes’ latest album, Cypress Grove, with backing from Marcus King for his Easy Eye Sound label.
North Mississippi Allstars (October 25th)
Allstars frontman Luther Dickinson and Isbell go back a long way — even earlier than the mid-‘00s, when the North Mississippi Allstars toured with Drive-By Truckers. Once, when Dickinson recalled an early Allstars gig playing a Walmart grand opening in Florence, Alabama, Isbell told him, “Not only was I at that show, I was working there at the time.” Dickinson invited Isbell to sing and play guitar on “Mean Old World” on the band’s latest album, Up and Rolling [New West].
Blind Boys of Alabama (October 26th)
Isbell got his start on guitar by backing his grandfather, who would have him play gospel songs for hours before pulling out a pocket knife and captivating him with Delta blues licks. The Blind Boys of Alabama, who have had an evolving lineup since first hitting the stage in 1939, perform arrangements of standards like “Amazing Grace” and tunes from the wide-ranging gospel songbook. After a weeklong dive into Mississippi blues, the Blind Boys of Alabama will end Isbell’s 2019 Ryman run right where he began.