Jason Isbell’s music has been categorized as “alt-country” or “Americana.” As Chris Shifflett (guitarist for the Foo Fighters and solo artist, and host of the Walkin’ the Floor podcast) has said, Americana is where “all the guitar-based acts” are being placed. Isbell himself has said that he considers himself a rock musician, and his recent performance at a packed Wolf Trap was most definitely a rock show.
The triple guitar attack (Jason, longtime guitarist Sadler Vaden, and new addition Will Johnson, who also played drums and drums) combined with the bright lights, would make it evident to anyone watching this was rock show.
That the lyrics are pushed to the front, and that the band doesn’t drown out the words with their instruments, doesn’t change the fact that this is rock.
A native of rural northern Alabama, Jason grew up in a working-class family. By his teens, he was playing guitar regularly in bars with accomplished musicians. And plenty of accomplished musicians were around: Some of these guys worked in the nearby studios in Muscle Shoals. One of these musicians was the bassist David Hood, father of Patterson Hood, one of the cofounders (with Mike Cooley) of the southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers.
Jason would join that band in the most happenstance of circumstances. On tour after their breakthrough album, 2000’s double LP Southern Rock Opera, the band’s guitarist no-showed a gig. Jason was there, and he aptly subbed in, and was made a regular member of the band. In addition to playing guitar for the Truckers, Jason composed and sang a number of songs, including standouts “Outfit” and “Decoration Day.”
The Truckers are known for living as hard as they rock, and Jason fell into that lifestyle, too, developing a major drinking problem. The Truckers tried to get Jason to agree to take time off and go to rehab, but he refused. As journalist Eric Garcia told me, and I’ve learned for myself with my struggles with compulsive eating, you have to “want it [sobriety] more than anything.” (Before I started curbing the volume I eat, and starting on a health diet, I had to reach a point where I was making myself sick nearly every day.) Jason refused to get help at that point, and he was forced out of the band.
At this point, Isbell was visibly struggling, having put on a significant amount of weight. Over the next few years, he put out a few solo albums. While many in the music business recognized his skill as a songwriter, those albums didn’t really get any traction. (In response to being asked about his favorite album, Isbell quipped, “The first one I recouped.”) In 2012, his then-girlfriend (now wife) Amanda Shires and his friend Ryan Adams convinced him to go rehab.
Isbell proved to be a real success story for getting sober. You can just look at him before and after rehab; the difference is clear — he’s slimmed down significantly, and he looks healthier than he did 15 years ago, despite being that much older. Though there wasn’t a distinct change in his songwriting, Isbell dug in deeper, and with, 2013’s Southeastern, he made his commercial breakthrough. He noted this year is the tenth anniversary of its release and said there’d be some special stuff coming later this year to commemorate it.
A few months ago, Jason released his latest LP, Weathervanes, to strong critical praise. At Wolf Trap on August 2, he opened the show with a few cuts from the album, “Save the World” and “King of Oklahoma.” The set included several other songs from the record: “Deathwish,” “Strawberry Woman,” “Middle of the Morning,” “Cast Iron Skillet,” and “White Beretta.”
Watch the official lyric video for “Save the World” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on YouTube:
In addition to the new songs, Jason played a number of items from his back catalog. “Alabama Pines,” the lead track from 2011’s Here We Rest, won the Americana Music Association’s award for Song of the Year. “Dreamsicle,” from his 2020 album, Reunions, is a semi-autobiographical account of his teenage years. There were a couple of songs from Southeastern: “Stockholm” and “Elephant,” as well as old favorites “Overseas” and “Last of My Kind.” Guitarist Sadler Vaden sang a song he played with a previous band he was in, Drivin N Cryin, “Honeysuckle Blue.” The main set concluded with “Miles” followed by “Cover Me Up,” which details Jason’s recovery from alcoholism and has become something of a signature sound.
For the encore, Jason played more of his major hits: “If We Were Vampires,” a love song that deals with mortality and loss; “24 Frames;” and “This Ain’t It.”
Before Jason and the 400 Unit took the stage, western Kentucky’s SG Goodman played an opening set. Goodman has a fine, understated sense of humor, a bit deadpan, which became clear when she told a story about her guitarist, who she described as something of a “foodie.” He took her to a place called the Yellow Deli; when she realized she had forgotten to order a drink, she went into the establishment, but couldn’t get anyone to serve her. Later, she learned this place is run by a cult, and that this cult believes that they need one hundred male virgins for Jesus to return in 2070. This made clear why they paid so much to her guitarist — the implication being he is a virgin — but not to her, a gay woman who is distinctly not a virgin.
Interestingly, this story took place while Goodman and her band were on tour with alt-country stalwarts Son Volt, whose song “Windfall” is referenced in Jason’s lyrics. Tyler Childers has been playing her song “Space & Time;” as she said, we got “the real deal” Wednesday. Her set also included “Work Until I Die;” “Old Time Feeling;” the duology of “If You Were Someone I Loved” and “You Were Someone I Loved,” which details with the opiate crisis in rural America; and “The Way I Talk,” about her distinctive accent. The set ended on a cover of an old Waylon Jennings tune.
Jason’s shows are always great, and he always uses his platform to support new artists you should pay attention who are doing great work. If you aren’t familiar with Goodman, you should check out her music; both of her albums are great. Every year, this is a highlight of Wolf Trap’s summer season, and this year’s show was no exception.
Here are some photos of SG Goodman opening Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Wolf Trap on August 2, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.
Here some photos of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit headlining Wolf Trap on August 2, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.