Pretty much every musician who steps onto the Ryman Auditorium stage makes a comment about what a special place it is to play. What was once the Union Gospel Tabernacle and then the Grand Ole Opry House has hosted thousands and thousands of performances over its 126-year history, from church services to radio shows to rock concerts. All that history is held within its walls, windows, floors, and pews.
From that perspective, it’s easy to see why Americana’s favorite son, Jason Isbell, has chosen to perform a string of five or six shows there every October for the past few years when he could make a lot more money playing one or two nights down the road at Ascend Amphitheater. It’s a spiritual decision he’s making, purposely choosing to nurture his soul rather than his wallet. And the joy and gratitude he feels from standing on that hallowed stage, being part of its deep history, comes through in his heartfelt performances, as evidenced on Live from the Ryman.
Recorded during his 2017 Ryman run, the set culls songs from Isbell’s last three records: Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and The Nashville Sound. If someone needed a Jason Isbell primer, this collection would be a pretty great entry point, as it works through rockers and weepers, alike, to offer up the full breadth of his songwriting talent.
Having all three of his stunning love songs — “Cover Me Up,” “Flagship,” and “If We Were Vampires” — in one place is reason enough to want this album on your shelf, but there’s so much more to enjoy. Backed by his rock & roll band, the 400 Unit — Sadler Vaden (guitar), Jimbo Hart (bass), Chad Gamble (drums), Derry DeBorja (keys), and Amanda Shires (fiddle) — Isbell shows, song by song, why he’s the current high water mark for singer/songwriters of pretty much any genre, from the political potency of “Hope the High Road” and “White Man’s World” to the rural profundity of “Cumberland Gap” and “Something More Than Free.”
One of the most special things about this record is much more subtle, though: It’s the way the audience anticipates each song, reacting enthusiastically to the opening chords of, say, the absolutely devastating commentary on cancer that is “Elephant.” It takes a remarkably special artist to harvest a fanbase with that kind of dedication to and appreciation of the craft of songwriting. That’s Jason Isbell, folks. And that’s why he’ll probably end up playing a whole month of shows at Ryman Auditorium before he’ll bump up to Bridgestone Arena. Catch one of those shows, if ever you can. Until then, Live from the Ryman is a pretty solid seat warmer.
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