Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Nashville Sound
Reviewed by: Jane Roser
Originating in the mid-50s as an attempt to bring country music sales back to life after having been pretty much decimated by rock and roll, The Nashville Sound replaced the gritty honky-tonk style with more pop elements (think Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Jim Reeves), fusing country with soft rock. Now, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell is paying homage to The Nashville Sound, recording ten new songs where it all first started, at RCA Studio A, as well as being a cheeky reminder to the world that what is coming out of Nashville is so much more than bro-country. Isbell is the yin to that yang and one of the most respected, talented songwriters of his generation.
Produced by Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb, who produced Isbell’s critically acclaimed albums Something More Than Free and Southeastern, The Nashville Sound is the first official album since 2011’s Here We Rest to include Isbell’s band the 400 Unit in top billing. Featuring Derry deBorja (keys), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Sadler Vaden (guitar) and Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires (fiddle, vocals) the ten tracks, at Cobb’s insistence, were recorded live with no demos or rehearsals, which just make them more raw and heartfelt.
“Last Of My Kind” is an introspective, nuanced song which showcases Isbell’s seemingly effortless storytelling style illustrating both the perils and hope of humanity: “couldn’t be happy in the city at night, you can’t see the stars from the neon light/sidewalk’s dirty and the river is worse, underground trains all run in reverse/nobody here can dance like me, everybody clapping on the one and the three.”
Isbell rocks out on “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope The High Road”, the latter a charged political statement which reminds us that no matter how pissed off you may be at the current administration, to always take the high road and have hope and faith that everything will eventually be OK.
Shires joins on vocals for the nostalgic, feel-good “Something To Love” and “If We Were Vampires”, a haunting song about a couple’s honest look at their mortality, noting neither will be here forever.
Tackling the uncomfortable issue of race and cultural privilege, “White Man’s World” is both critical and hopeful: “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war, your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for.”
The Nashville Sound is rife with both style and substance. Isbell’s writing and delivery come as naturally to him as carrying on a conversation with an old friend and his narratives paint a very real picture of what Isbell experiences daily, or as he said in an interview with Garden & Gun magazine, “One of my beliefs is that I have to talk about my beliefs” and this album personifies that both beautifully and viscerally.