Jason Isbell. Ryman Residency. 2015

Isbell Shires 2

Jason Isbell. Ryman Residency. October 2015

You made some new friends after the show
But you’ll forget their names
In 24 frames

We were halfway through the first Jason Isbell performance of the weekend when his latest single found its way into the setlist. The song (which uses frames per second as a metaphor for how fast life can change) is much different than what came before, but that’s because Jason Isbell is a much different man than he was before. That line about making friends and then forgetting their names has always reminded me of a photo I took of him not long after he parted ways with Drive-By Truckers. The picture was taken at Larimer Lounge sometime in 2009. The Isbell portrayed in that image would be unrecognizable to those who discovered him post-Southeastern. He is six years younger, but he looks ten years older and at least thirty pounds heavier. He wore a smile on his face as he shared a shot and a beer with us, but there was a blankness in his bloodshot eyes as they threatened to be swallowed by the pillow-sized bags that hung below them. He wore a large hoop in one ear and his curly hair stuck to his sweaty forehead long after he left the stage. He looked like shit. Part of me wants to delete the photo, because I know I wouldn’t want it out there if it were me, but I keep it as a reminder that things really can change in 24 frames. And sometimes those changes are for the better. Isbell forgot our names before we even walked away that night, and he still had a few more destructive years in front of him, but then he made some decisions that put him on a different path…one that led him to perform “24 Frames” from the famous stage at the Ryman Auditorium on the first of a four-night run of extremely sold-out hometown shows.

Shires

But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time
And the old lovers sing “I thought it’d be me who helped him get home”
But home was a dream, one I’d never seen till you came along

Jason Isbell’s raw talent is beyond reproach. His departure from the Truckers was heartbreaking for us fans, but it was also necessary. He needed to get out on his own in order to grow. A couple contributions to an album every couple years just wasn’t enough. But that band cast a large shadow, so it was hard for him to find the light. Especially considering he was drowning himself in liquor every day. So although he sold close to ten thousand tickets (instantly) because of that talent, he did not achieve Ryman residency status on his own. There are many characters in the story of Isbell’s sobriety, but Amanda Shires is the female lead. The woman who is now his wife (and mother of his child) opened the first night with a performance of her own, but she also contributed to the weekend in many other ways. She played the fiddle (like she was born with it her hands) throughout every one of her husband’s sets, but her primary contribution was that of a muse. I am not trying to take anything away from her talent as a musician, but “Cover Me Up” is literally one of the best songs of the past decade and she is the reason that song exists. Isbell once sang “there ain’t much difference in the man I wanna be and the man that I really am”, and while that may have been true when he wrote those words, Shires was the woman who was able to bridge that gap. It could have come off as cheesy when Isbell told the story of singing the song to his fiancé for the first time (“she married me after, so I knew it was a pretty good song”), but his sentiments were too genuine to doubt. Watching them perform that song together, and joining in with the inevitable cheer of the crowd during the “sobered up” part, was a highlight every night. True collaboration mixed with true love and raw talent is something that just never gets old.

Isbell2

Don’t want to sleep yet

Buddy it’s a good bet

I’ll raise more hell than you

Do a couple rails

And chase your own tail

And talk about the bad old days

There were a group of us who traveled to Tennessee for the weekend. We rented a house in East Nashville and were planning a fun-filled trip away from work, kids, and the stresses of daily life. We came from Colorado and California. Some of us had been to Nashville before, while others had never even been to the South. We were all big Jason Isbell fans, but most of the group had never seen him before. We all came with different priorities, but I was the only one who planned on going to the Ryman all three nights we were in town. Everyone thought I was crazy. I was pretty much told that I could go alone because “who would want to go see the same show three times?” As it turned out, the man who described himself as a ‘punk, redneck, hillbilly kid from Alabama’ helped steer everyone in my direction. Sure, various bars, restaurants, sights and sounds, and even a trip down to Lynchburg were on the agenda, but the majority of our group were not going to miss out on a second night of seeing a Nashville musician at the top of his game perform at one of the most iconic places in music history. So after a little fun(?) at Tootsie’s, we found ourselves back in our seats when things opened up with “Seven Mile Island”. It was the same cast (Isbell, Shires, DeBorja, Gamble, Hart and Vaden), but it was a much different performance. The setlist contained many of the same selections as the night before, but everyone on the stage seemed a little more relaxed. They were less formal than they were on opening night. And maybe just slightly unhinged. The crowd was much rowdier as well. The standing ovations lasted a little longer and the audience’s voice was a little louder. And saving “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” for the encore created a thick anticipation that didn’t exist the night before. “Super 8” is the one song that just doesn’t fit on Southeastern, but as a closer, it was like throwing gasoline on the fire that was already burning bright on the streets of Nashville on that particular Saturday night.

Isbell

Baby let’s not ever get that way
I’ll say whatever words I need to say
I’ll throw rocks at your window from the street
And we’ll call ourselves the flagship of the fleet

I hate to dwell on the Isbell/Shires dynamic, but after seeing him perform ten times (counting with the Truckers), having her by his side really set these shows apart from the other post-Southeastern performances I had witnessed. The collaboration came to a head when they decided to perform Something More Than Free in its entirety to open Sunday night’s set. I will admit that I would have been slightly disappointed by that prospect had it not been my third night in a row, but what seemed a slightly misguided idea ended up being a highlight of the weekend. Hearing the album come alive in the proper sequence gave new weight to the material. There was also something special about seeing it performed in the city where it was created, knowing it would probably never happen again. The best part about the whole thing was watching Isbell and Shires interact with each other during “Flagship”. I literally thought they might start melting into one another when he sang “volunteer to lose touch with the world and focus on one solitary girl” while staring directly into her eyes. It was almost too personal to watch. Hearing “Hudson Commodore” performed live for the first time was something special as well; as was the darker, slightly heartbreaking live rendition of the Centro-matic tribute, “To a Band That I Loved”. After a short intermission, they came back for a ‘greatest hits’ set that included many selections that had been covered in previous nights. “Flying Over Water” stuck out (as it did on Friday night) as one of those songs that the whole band just enjoys playing. I love the recorded version, but something about the Ryman just made that song so much more powerful. “From the sky, we look so organized and brave.” Those lyrics kept repeating themselves in my head as I looked out the window of our Southwest flight home.

Isbell3

Don’t call what your wearing an outfit. Don’t ever say your car is broke
Don’t worry about losing your accent, a Southern Man tells better jokes
Have fun but stay clear of the needle. Call home on your sister’s birthday
Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus, don’t give it away

Something More Than Free being performed cover-to-cover wasn’t the only special thing about Sunday night’s performance. As if to counter everything I had said all weekend (essentially I kept telling everybody that the Truckers songs sounded great, but they just couldn’t recreate that Truckers sound), “Never Gonna Change” blew the doors off the auditorium. It was a hundred times more powerful than it was on Friday night. Then, for the second time in my life, I was able to share the same space with Isbell’s father as his son sang “Outfit”. The song that introduced most people to Isbell’s voice is based on the advice his father passed down to him. So when he told his father (just as his did at the Terry Pace Benefit at the Shoals Theater last year) that he never forgot the lessons learned, it added a legitimacy to the song that cannot be denied. Jason Isbell isn’t just some kid who moved to Nashville to write country songs. He grew up in the South. He isn’t trying to cash in on a genre that happens to be popular at the time. He is just an amazing musician who happens to have a head full of stories from his father and his grandfather and their fathers before them…and those stories just sound better when put to country music. But he has his own stories as well. Southeastern is a modern masterpiece and that is because it is so honest. An album like that only comes from a place of real pain and suffering, but it can only exist once that pain and suffering is so far in the past that it cannot present a clear and present danger. Some of those songs must be hard to revisit night after night, and “Elephant” must be one of the hardest, but it’s also one of the most powerful. So when he chose that song as the encore for Sunday night, and then followed it with “Danko / Manuel”, he made it clear that he saved the best for last when it came to the weekend’s performances.

Isbell4

I ain’t living like I should.
A little rest might do me good.
Got to sinking in the place where I once stood.
Now I ain’t living like I should.

It has taken me a week to get myself to sit down and write about my time in Nashville. I wanted to be able write a whole narrative about our travel experience like I did for the Muscle Shoals trip when we saw Hood, Isbell and Cooley perform, but I just didn’t have it in me. Unfortunately, by leaving our work, kids, and daily stresses at home, we let our vices get the best of us. We didn’t visit all the sights or hear all the sounds that we wanted to. We didn’t eat in all the restaurants that had been recommended and we didn’t get out and experience much of the South. We did hit some cool bars though. And we got to know a bit of East Nashville. We experienced the experience that is Tootsie’s and we met a lot of great people, including quite a few interesting Uber and cab drivers. One of those drivers even sent a talent scout to hear my sister sing. We also made it to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg, although that was quite the task. In all reality, our weekend was spent seeing Jason Isbell and drinking heavily at house we rented. I am 100% ok with that. It was an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But, the price was heavy. The journey home hurt like hell. Some of us came down with colds and sinus infections. It literally took days to recover completely. But now that I have recovered, I have to wonder how Jason Isbell did it for so many years. Day after day, night after night. He has said in interviews that he barely remembers his time with Drive-By Truckers. Amazing. I know how good it feels to be sitting here right now, especially after a debaucherous weekend away. I am healthy, at home, and with my family. So I can only imagine how good it must feel to him. He is also home, healthy, and with his family. He will remember every minute he spent on stage at the Ryman. He will remember going home with his beautiful wife (who just shared the stage with him) to care for their beautiful daughter. But if he ever forgets how good he’s got it, I’ll always have that photo from 2009 to remind him of the alternative.

October 23rd:
Palmetto Rose
Stockholm
Decoration Day
Speed Trap Town
Tour of Duty
Dress Blues
Alabama Pines
Something More Than Free
Different Days
24 Frames
The Life You Chose
Cover Me Up
Relatively Easy
Flying Over Water
Outfit
Children of Children

Flagship
Never Gonna Change
Codeine
Sway
If It Takes a Lifetime

October 24th:
Seven Mile Island
Go It Alone
Flying Over Water
Palmetto Rose
Something More Than Free
Alabama Pines
Dress Blues
Codeine
Different Days
Streetlights
Traveling Alone
The Life You Chose
Speed Trap Town
If It Takes a Lifetime
Stockholm
Cover Me Up
Children of Children

Flagship
24 Frames
Outfit
Decoration Day
Super 8

October 25th:
If It Takes a Lifetime
24 Frames
Flagship
How to Forget
Children of Children
The Life You Chose
Something More Than Free
Speed Trap Town
Hudson Commodore
Palmetto Rose
To a Band That I Loved

Stockholm
Alabama Pines
Decoration Day
Flying Over Water
Never Gonna Change
Cover Me Up
Relatively Easy
Outfit

Elephant
Danko / Manuel
Codeine

Ryman Songs

  5 comments for “Jason Isbell. Ryman Residency. 2015

  1. Beck
    November 3, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Excellent review, thanks! I am heading to see him in Green Bay (followed by a Packers game) in a couple weeks for my bachelor party and this review gets me pumped up. In sure there will be some flu-like symptoms after that weekend too.

  2. Dave
    November 1, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Too bad you actually missed the best show of the run. He did indeed save the best for last and that was Monday night’s closer, not the last show you saw on Sunday. I’m glad I have pro-shot videos of those last two nights. It was great to see and hear ‘Something More than Free’ from front to back and to see John Prine come out for the encore on Monday night (among many other highlights).
    And “Never Gonna Change” smoked even more on Monday than Sunday. That song has now officially been returned to its’ owner!

    • November 1, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Damn Dave, had to rub it in didn’t you? Lol. I wish we could’ve stayed through Monday night’s show. I really wanted to see Chris Stapleton as well.

  3. Kat
    November 1, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Excellent review! And kind of you not to out me for being a traitor on Saturday. 🙂 XO

    • November 1, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      Haha! “…but the majority of our group” 😉

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