Last Friday, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released Live From the Ryman, a collection of performances recorded during his six-night residency at the famed Nashville venue in 2017. Starting Monday evening, he returns to the Ryman for another group of six intimate shows, with support from singer-songwriter Amanda Shires — Isbell’s wife and fellow member of the 400 Unit — as well as Bully, Jeff the Brotherhood, Diarrhea Planet and Molly Tuttle. Isbell spends a significant portion of his time on the road, but says this annual Nashville tradition always feels like coming home.
“For Southern musicians of any kind, country or otherwise, it’s sort of Mecca. It’s the Holy Land for us,” Isbell raved about the Ryman during an August interview with Rolling Stone. “It looks great in there and it sounds great in there.”
“And it’s close. You feel close to people in there,” says Shires, who plays fiddle and sings backup in the 400 Unit when she’s not playing solo shows. “The room’s set up in a way that even the people in the top feel like they’re close to you.”
That closeness between performer and audience is an asset for the venue, even as it imposes some limitations on the people who grace its stage.
“There’s no rock-star bullshit at the Ryman,” says Isbell. “There’s no barricade, there’s no security between me and the people listening to me. And you look up from the stage and there’s all these church windows and church pews and, even if you’re not necessarily a religious person, you’re thinking about the spirituality of the situation and how some people are in there having a real serious moment.”
For now, Isbell says six shows in one week is the maximum he could do — he takes a break on Thursday, when the Pistol Annies play a hometown gig — between travel time back to his and Shires’ home outside Nashville, visitors coming to stay with them, and needing to take care of their young daughter. But he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of stretching the residency across multiple weeks in the future.
“If it does continue to grow, I might consider spreading it out over a month and doing four weekends of three shows each or something like that,” he says. “Because I don’t want to go play the [Bridgestone] Arena. I’ve been to shows at the Arena and I couldn’t hear everything I wanted to and I couldn’t see everybody like I wanted to.”
Plus, with the Ryman’s central location in downtown Nashville, there’s no avoiding the drive through the always-energetic throngs of people packing the bars of Lower Broadway when Isbell heads back home.
“You leave the show and you gotta stop and let people cross the road,” he says. “And there’s all these drunk bachelorettes everywhere. You just feel like you just did some rock & roll shit when you’re leaving the Ryman. I roll the window down and I think, ‘These people are alive.'”