Six months after releasing The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell wrapped up 2017 with a trio of hometown shows at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Although billed as the cornerstone of his artist-in-residence program at the Nashville museum, the shows also served a wider purpose, shining a light on the large community of singers, sidemen and songwriters who’ve surrounded Isbell for more than a decade.
Each show was different, beginning with a scaled-down gig featuring Isbell and Amanda Shires as an acoustic duo. Much of The Nashville Sound was written in the couple’s Tennessee home, which lent an authentic sort of intimacy to the duo’s performances of “If We Were Vampires,” “Cover Me Up” and “Something to Love.” A highlight: Shires accompanying Isbell on fiddle during “If We Were Vampires,” tracing his lyrics with raw and imperfect harmonies.
“This is weird for me to even admit, but that song moved me, right from the start,” Isbell told Rolling Stone Country last spring. “When I got into the studio to sing it, I had a really hard time performing that song without choking up, which is a good sign. You feel like an idiot, thinking, ‘I’m sitting here, crying at my own song!’ You can hear that in the recording; there’s a couple spots where my voice breaks a little bit. I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say, though. It’s a true song. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.”
When Isbell and Shires returned to the Hall of Fame’s CMA Theater one week later, they brought along the entire 400 Unit. Armed with acoustic guitars, brushed percussion and an upright piano, the group performed an unplugged setlist that spanned the length of Isbell’s career, dipping as far back as his days with the Drive-By Truckers. Originally released on the Truckers’ 2003 album Decoration Day, “Outfit” has since become a staple of the 400 Unit’s shows. In this performance, the 400 Unit performs the song in true campfire fashion, replacing its anthemic, electrified stomp with strummed dreadnoughts and a singalong-friendly arrangement.
Isbell’s artist-in-residency ended with a final concert that featured a string of one-off bands, all populated by Isbell, Shires and any number of the pair’s musical heroes. Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all made appearances throughout the evening, with the musicians swapping solos and sharing lead-singer duties. In this clip, Emmylou Harris teams up with Isbell and Shires for a unique take on The Nashville Sound‘s “Tupelo.”
Isbell remains the Country Music Hall of Fame’s artist-in-residence until the museum picks a new honoree. He is the youngest musician to receive the distinction by several decades.