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Jason Isbell at the Ryman: A Magical Night at the Mother Church

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Jason Isbell’s is a voice that commands attention, singing words and playing music that rewards the effort.

It’s a gift to see an artist very firmly in his prime, backed by a powerful, tight, road-hot band. Throw in one of the best venues in the world – Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium – and you have the makings of a night we won’t soon forget.

Isbell is still producing vital songs. But he can also lean on an impressive catalogue that goes back 20 years through his early work with the Drive-By Truckers. We came later to the Isbell bandwagon, jumping on in the last few years. It didn’t matter. We loved the songs we knew, and were happy to listen to the ones we didn’t.

Isbell sits at the top of the Roots Americana scene, a singer-songwritery genre that somehow blends American country with dollops of whatever amount of gospel, soul, blues, bluegrass, or rock and roll each artist deems necessary. Take Isbell’s “24 Frames,” a hooky, power pop song that could have easily come out of Athens, Georgia in the mid-80s.

You thought God was an architect, now you know

He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow

And everything you built it’s all for show, goes up in flames

In 24 frames

Isbell has a particular gift for serving pain and beauty on the same plate. “Dreamsicle” is a punch in the gut from the first verse, recalling childhood sadness and shame. But it surges into an archetypical American childhood memory in the chorus, delivered in Isbell’s strong, aching tenor - and backed Sunday night by thousands of audience members who could taste that melting treat.

I guess we’re leaving town again

We’re moving out and moving in

Gotta break the news to all my friends

But they won’t care

They’ll just find another face

To fall behind and take my place

To run way out past second base

And just stand there

Dreamsicle on a summer night

In a folding lawn chair

Witch’s ring around the moon

Better get home soon

This was a show that carried a special weight for us, and not just because of the artists and the venue. We’d been looking forward to it for months, and thought we’d missed it. Our original tickets were for the Oct. 17 show, but that was the day Mary’s father died. We were grateful to be in Richmond, Indiana with him and the rest of her family, and barely gave the lost show another thought. Then came a week of grieving and funeral planning, followed by the funeral Saturday.

We returned to Nashville late last evening and slept in Sunday. Here’s the thing: Isbell wasn’t just playing the Ryman on the 17th. It was one of an eight-night stand in Isbell’s hometown. I checked online and, sure enough, the last show was Sunday night. I quickly Stub-Hub and found a pair of seats for 88 bucks each. To say I’m glad I bought them would be an understatement.

It's a pleasure to see a band as tight and strong as the Isbell and the 400 Unit, which features Jimbo Hart on bass; Chad Gamble on drums; Derry deBorja (formerly of Son Volt) on keyboards; and Sadler Vaden (formerly of Drivin’ and Cryin’) on guitar.

And what can you say about the Ryman? At just over 2,300 capacity, it feels both big and small. We were near the back row in the balcony, and our seats were great. Hard not to look at the stage and not think of the history. We will, of course, be back again and again.

Who: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

When: October 24, 2021

Where: Ryman Auditorium, Nashville

With: Mary

Here is a Spotify playlist of Sunday night’s set list:


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