Artists / Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Jason Isbell Wraps Residency at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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(Pictured Back Row L to R): David Rawlings, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young, Mac McAnally, Jason Isbell, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Peter Cooper, Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell’s manager Traci Thomas (Bottom Row L to R): Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Amanda Shires and Gillian Welch (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

 

Tuesday night critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell wrapped up his residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum. Isbell’s third and final sold-out performance hosted in the museum’s CMA Theater featured surprise guests Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Mac McAnally, Buddy Miller, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch.

Evening highlights included:

“Tupelo” – “Tupelo” comes from Isbell’s 2017 album, The Nashville Sound, which topped the Americana airplay chart for the year and was the #1 album in No Depression magazine’s year-end reader’s poll. The Nashville Sound, came in at #2 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 2017’s best country and Americana albums.

With Harris singing harmony and Shires on fiddle and harmony, the song–stripped of the recording’s understated R&B rhythm and stinging slide guitar–took on a more comtemplative edge. Driving down a highway, the narrator backslides on his sobriety. As he struggles with how much to drink, he considers making an impulsive trip to Mississippi to visit a woman he misses.

The spare arrangement heightened the beautiful simplicity of the song’s melody and the tender ache in Isbell’s tenor voice. The light-as-air female harmonies emphazied what was at stake as the narrator grasps for the way to deal with a weak moment, while contemplating whether uniting with a former lover might help keep his feet on the ground.

Introducing Harris, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Isbell said, “I’ve been a huge fan of her music since I was just learning what music was. I think just about everybody I know feels the same way. She’s somebody who has really added to country music and to me she is irreplaceable.” Harris performed the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song “Love Hurts” as a duet with Miller, as they have done in the past, with Isbell and Shires providing solid instrumental support.

“Traveling Alone” – From Isbell’s 2013 album, Southeastern, “Traveling Alone” paints a stark portrait of a musician on the road and recalls the devastating effects of teh years and miles. The narrator acknowledges having leaned on unnamed substances to combat the loneliness, and the song climaxes in a night where he can barely stand onstage during a performance and gets turned down by street-corner prostitutes because he is so out of it. He eventually asks, to no one in particular, “Won’t you ride with me?”

Isbell’s melodic songwriting gifts gives the song a poignancy that keeps it from wallowing in darkness and self-pity. The performance allowed Isbell to trade moving guitar solos with Miller, who also joined Shires on vocal harmony. With Isbell’s wife by his side, a song that might once have been a warning about his addictions now highlights the importance of his sobriety and how it has fostered a grounded relationship that sustains him.

The trio also performed an unadorned version of Miller’s spirtually searching song, “Wide River to Cross,” that highlighted his expensive voice and, once again, revealed the way that good musicians can bring out the best in each other in a setting where everyone has room to improvise.

“Look at Miss Ohio” – Introducing Welch and Rawlings, Isbell admitted, “Every once in a great while, someone will tell me that I’m the best songwriter that they’ve ever heard. Whenever they say that, I immediately think of the people I’m about to bring on stage . . . I’ve gotten hours and hours and hours of joy and sadness and pleasure and sorrow and everything you can get out of a song, from the songs these next two artists write and perform.”

The power of writing by Welch and Rawlings come through on “Look at Miss Ohio,” from Welch’s 2003 album, Soul Journey. Welch sounded wryly insightful singing about a beauty queen letting her hair down for a spell. The song’s languid, moody arrangement gave Isbell another opportunity to display his guitar skills, as he played off Rawlings’s characteristically uncommon single-string picking in a way that brought out the best in both.

The ensemble also performed a beautiful version of Isbell’s “Something to Love” and a rollicking rendition of a Rawlings recording, “Midnight Train.” They had not rehearsed the song, but their interplay proved how quickly all involved could come up with inventive ideas on the spot. Shires, especially, shined, as her fiddle work highlighted the song’s chuggig rhythm while adding some sharp, discordant accents.

To end the evening, Isbell’s guests returned on stage, and together sang Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” The song appears on Young’s 1992 album, Harvest Moon, recorded partly in Nashville. Isbell cited “Unknown Legend” as one of his favorites from Young. Harris has said that every Young album includes a hidden gem or two beyond the songs that reveive the most attention.

The choice proved a good way to close a night of surprises that made the loosest set of Isbell’s memorable artist-in-residence concerts.

Isbell has won Grammys for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song. The Americana Music Association named him Artist of the Year in 2015 and has awarded him Album of the Year two times and Song of the Year honors three times. The Alabama native has recorded six albums under his own name and with his band, the 400 Unit. His latest, The Nashville Sound, is nominated for two Grammys, Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song (“If We Were Vampires”), and was nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s CMA Awards.

Established in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program honors a musical master who can be credited with contributing a large and significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. The artist-in-residence is invited to use the museum’s performance venues to create unique musical experiences. Isbell joins a prestigious group of past honorees that includes Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson and 2015 artist-in-residence Rosanne Cash.

The museum’s 2017 Artist-in-Residence series is supported by Carter Vintage Guitars. To learn more about the museum’s artist-in-residence program, visit countrymusichalloffame.org.

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