Friday night marked the fourth show of a six-night stand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and if the Grammy-winning artist was feeling tired, he certainly didn’t let on. Instead, Isbell proved why he’s one of the finest poets working in American music.
Mixing various aspects of Mark Twain and Bruce Springsteen, Isbell’s skill for penning lyrics that resonate with regular people was on display throughout the 19-song concert, whether he was lifting up the crowd or reducing it to tears with his probing insights. Dubbing the Ryman “the place we call home,” Isbell brought an arsenal of thoughtful anthems from all points of his career to the venue, mixing sharp self-analysis and tempering tales of substance abuse, rural poverty and death with sardonic wit.
The night began with a heady exploration of existence via “24 Frames,” with Isbell howling about how a lifetime of human effort can disintegrate in the blink of an eye. He then transitioned to the delicate drunkard’s lullaby of “Streetlights,” from 2009’s Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, portraying a guy who stumbles around a strange town unable to remember where he parked and who is too far gone to drive if he could.
It was a push and pull of emotions that continued throughout the night, with the crowd rising from the Ryman’s pews for the caustic privilege takedown “White Man’s World” then settling into hushed reverence for “If We Were Vampires,” as Isbell focused his attention on his bandmate and wife Amanda Shires. Earlier in the night, Shires had opened the show with a blast of richly textured Americana off her latest album To the Sunset and a cameo by singer-songwriter Todd Snider.
Isbell was also doing the people’s work during his set, admonishing fans who “watch an entire song on their cellular phone” to loud cheers of approval. Songs like “Alabama Pines” and “Different Days” connected different points of his poetry, from a deeply personal and detail-rich story of longing to sly turns of phrase about a long road to redemption. Then there was the twangy country soul of “Tupelo,” in which the blistering summer heat gives Isbell’s character a place to hide from the thin-skinned city-dwellers on his tail.
His agonizing tribute to a friend dying of cancer in “Elephant” felt almost like an allegory for the nation’s political division — “We’d drink our drinks and laugh out loud, and bitch about the weekend crowd, and try to ignore the elephant somehow,” he sang. Meanwhile, “Cover Me Up” — which he’s performed at every show of the residency so far — set the Ryman on fire as Isbell brought a vivid scene of lovers locking themselves in their room into view.
“Never Gonna Change,” a standout from Isbell’s earliest artistic incarnation with Drive-By Truckers, closed the show with a scorching ode to the archetypal blue-collar Southern man. But with “Stockholm” — off Southeastern, the album that would reshape Isbell’s solo career a decade later — love had triggered a change, with sobriety reframing the way he sees relationships. That sentiment also courses through the chugging “Super 8,” where he prays for his own survival in a cheap motel room and later gets pumped full of Pedialyte to combat alcohol poisoning.
Details like that one and the tension between seriousness and sly humor are what make Isbell’s songs so interesting to dissect, and a reason he’s cherished by so many. Taken as a whole, his Friday-night set at the Ryman was a reminder of how the best poets can feed the human spirit. Isbell often paints a bleak picture of the world, but the overarching message seems to be that love can save us from ourselves. And if it can’t, maybe we can still laugh about it.
“Hope the High Road”
“White Man’s World”
“If We Were Vampires”
“Maybe It’s Time”
“Cover Me Up”
“Never Gonna Change”
“Danko / Manuel”
“Melissa” (Allman Brothers Band cover)