It’s a rainy November evening in Nashville and Josh Ritter and Jason Isbell are huddled in front of the console at Sound Emporium Studios, an historic space located in an otherwise nondescript building in the city’s Belmont neighborhood. It’s the last recording session for Ritter’s new album, which Isbell is producing and playing on as part of the 400 Unit, and they’re in the thick of adding fiddle to one of the album’s tracks.
The song, an optimistic, mid-tempo rambler called “In Passing,” is the group’s penultimate to finish after a week in the studio, following initial sessions held back in August. “In Passing” is anchored by the acoustic warmth and unpretentious erudition (“Love the thorn and hate the rose,” Ritter sings in the hook) endemic to Ritter’s earlier work, with a gently twangy, studiously meaty heft lent by the 400 Unit. It’s classic Ritter on Muscle Shoals-bred steroids.
“You’re a genius,” Isbell says to Amanda Shires, who is still in the booth recording her fiddle parts. “Now go back and stack on top of it.” Shires layers three fiddle parts atop one another, the second and third layers played ever-so-slightly more loosely than the first, making for a sound that’s at once fat and chiming, stretching across the backing music like thick, lustrous strands of taffy. Shires isn’t hearing what she’s wanting after the first couple of takes and has a few choice words for her fiddle in the interim.
“We don’t wanna go through all this to get a fuckin’ parental advisory sticker for your ass,” Isbell jokes. “We don’t want folks saying, ‘It’s beautiful, but there’s a young lady saying, ‘Fuck this shit’ at the end.'”
As Isbell, Shires and engineer Matt Ross-Spang put the finishing touches on fiddle, Ritter paces the room, listening thoughtfully and saying little. It’s readily apparent, even to a newcomer, the trust he places in Isbell and the rest of the 400 Unit; with all of Ritter’s parts already recorded, he seems content to hang back and observe the masterful team he’s assembled at work.
Ritter and Isbell crossed paths a number of times over the last few years, but it wasn’t until the two toured together in 2016 that they discovered a special musical connection. It was after this tour — and the 2017 release of Ritter’s most recent album, Gathering — that Ritter thought that connection could extend to working in the studio together.
“The inclusivity of the whole group and the musicality every night [on tour] was just wonderful,” Ritter explains, seated alongside Shires and Isbell in the control room following the session. “I wanted to do something different with my record and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to work with those guys?’ I wrote Jason asking him about it, not really knowing what he would say. It felt like such a good experience to have, a great life experience to get to make a record with a friend like that.”
Isbell’s said yes, but having not produced an album in a few years, he had doubts that he could pull off the project “without dropping the ball.” After some thought (and a conversation with Shires), he told Ritter he’d come onboard if they could record in Nashville with the 400 Unit and the engineer of his choice, terms to which Ritter readily agreed.
The news was a dream come true for Shires, who had been a fan of Ritter’s since his 2003 album Hello Starling. She particularly connects to Ritter’s lyrics and found in him something of a kindred writing spirit (not to mention a close friend).
“What I really like to do is talk about writing,” she says. “We did a lot of talking about writing. To talk about writing seriously is a beautiful thing and there aren’t a lot of people you can do that with… And I got a new family member.”
“When [Shires] and I first started hanging out together she was listening to Josh’s work a lot,” Isbell adds. “I’m an alcoholic — you may have heard me say this if you’ve ever heard me say anything at all — but in those days I would drink all the time and any male that she listened to I was like, ‘That’s terrible. I don’t like that.’ Because I was thinking one day she was gonna like this guy’s songs better than mine. Then after I sobered up I was like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s a really good song. I think that I can enjoy this with you now that I’m attempting to be an adult.’ I really fell in love with Josh’s work through that.”
Shires’ deep knowledge of Ritter’s music turned out to be a real boon to the recording process. As Isbell puts it, “The way their voices work together — it occurred to me last night that it’s because she spent so much time singing along to Josh’s songs that she knows what he’s going to do next. That’s pretty rare. It’s also really rare that someone would admit it. For me, it was like having an extra gear that most producers do not have in the studio.”
The second track the group records this evening (the last one for the LP) is “Silver Blade,” a mournful story-song that Ritter originally wrote for Joan Baez’s 2018 album Whistle Down the Wind. Ritter, Isbell and Shires record the track seated in a circle, turning down the studio lights to build a quiet intimacy reflective of the song’s somber narrative.
While the room is abuzz with finishing Ritter’s album, there’s another elephant in the room too big to be ignored: It’s November 6th, and any minute now mid-term election results should start trickling in. The conversation frequently returns to the election, with Isbell periodically checking in via text with Jennifer Palmieri, former White House communications director for President Obama. Throughout the evening, Isbell and company tweet messages encouraging voter turnout.
Ritter is quick to share that the current political climate had a sizable impact on the songs he wrote for this album. He cites two songs slated for the LP — “Awesome Kind of Dream” and “The Torch Committee” — as being some of the album’s more pointed moments of political commentary, but believes the state of the world left a mark on the record as a whole.
“The songs are very reflective of the times in which they were written,” he explains. “As we started coming together and playing, the songs that felt like they were gonna work really jumped out as obvious. From there on, after we recorded in August we had this really nice time to stop and listen and let the songs marinate a little bit. In that time, the world has just become even crazier. There’s a lot of the record that feels reflective of the moment it was in.”
“They all sound political to me now,” Isbell adds. “I think all smart songs right now sound political to me, because everything has been so heavily politicized. But the album is not all darkness. It’s not all drowning. There’s some resilience and some hope on the record.”
He, Shires and Ritter all point to “In Passing” as one of the album’s more hopeful reflections on our current moment. That song in particular, recorded in the midst of the election and the group’s final session together, has already taken on greater significance for Ritter.
“When you write a song there’s a part of you that says, ‘Well, I wrote this and I made all the decisions in it,’” he says. “Then there’s the world you created the song in, and it has its own effect on the music. The alchemy of it is what’s incredible, and that on this incredibly important night we’re making music. It’s bottled up in that song. I’ll never think of that song again without thinking of this kind of moment we’re in as a country, as well as this moment right now.”