You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Praised by Prine and Crosby, Jason Isbell brings unique Southern sound to EKU

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 1/31/2023 Walter Tunis, Lexington Herald-Leader

Near the end of his newest studio album, “Georgia Blue,” Jason Isbell takes the torch passed on by the Allman Brothers Band, the seminal Southern ensemble that – like most of the songs and artists featured on the record - happen to share home states with the songwriter. The tune is “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” a signature Allmans instrumental that served as a glossary of the rock, blues, jazz and jam inspirations that came to define a ’70s Southern rock generation.

Isbell and his long-running 400 Unit, ably assisted by keyboardist Peter Levin (one of the late Gregg Allman’s final band members), approach the tune with a respectful level of cool by floating along with the tune’s meditative lyricism before it famously shifts gears into a barnburner guitar showdown.

The most immediate question this leaves is two-fold. Why is one the South’s most astute and literate songsmiths digging into someone else song? And an instrumental, at that?

The answer falls well within the expansive trajectory of Isbell’s music over the past two decades, from his records with fellow Georgia rock journeymen Drive-By Truckers to the music fashioned with and without the 400 Unit under his own name.

Not your typical Southern rock

Isbell furthered his compositional skills over the course of seven studio albums released between 2007 and 2020 (“Georgia Blue,” an eighth entry, was a benefit record devoted solely to Georgia-bred music and musicians). These works forged a new generational voice for Southern writers built upon stark human candor as well the sweeping social fabric that surrounds it. The resulting music may have often been lumped into the generic genre tag of Southern rock, but adhered to none of the its tired stereotypes.

Isbell’s songs were not a collective vehicle for fist-pumping, flag-waving opportunism. Instead, they were worldly, well-crafted works – many with introspective streaks – that artfully upheld traditions received through the years from the soul and country spirits that long lived in the soil of his Georgia homeland. They shifted from the famed rock and r&b gumbo cooked up in Muscle Shoals to the guitar savvy adventures the Allman Brothers began undertaking in Macon as far back as 1969.

Any contemporary act worth its salt follows and honors a similar sense of stylistic tradition. The early records of British mainstays like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were loaded with songs by such American contemporaries and elders as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. The mid-to-late 1970s concerts Bruce Springsteen delivered as his stardom unfolded included a revivalist-level cover medley devoted to the 1960s Detroit rock and soul music of Mitch Ryder.

So why shouldn’t a heralded Southern artist like Isbell, known for such expert original songs of renewal (“Cover Me Up”), reflection (“24 Frames”) and uneasy social observation (“White Man’s World”), take time to champion the influences that helped shape his musical voice.

Of course, “Georgia Blue” is hardly the first time Isbell has taken to addressing the muses – Southern or otherwise – that came before him.

For his 2011 album, “Here We Rest,” and reprised on the 2012 concert album “Live from Alabama” (pulled from a pair of club shows in Birmingham and Huntsville), Isbell covered the pop-soul single “Heart on a String,” a song originally cut in 1970 at Muscle Shoals’ famed Fame studios by the underappreciated Alabama vocalist Candi Station. “Live from Alabama” also ventured out of the South for a highly combustible version of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”

Similarly, there was the 2021 EP disc “Live at Welcome to 1979” that had Isbell and the 400 Unit taking on tunes by Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and John Prine (Welcome to 1979 was the name of the Nashville studio where the project was recorded).

This, of course, only outlines what we hear of Isbell’s musical heroes on record. His visibility, his popularity and, yes, his considerable artistic reputation has allowed him the opportunity to rub shoulders with a number of high-profile pals onstage.

Performing with John Prine

One celebrity Lexington audiences got to see Isbell collaborate with up close was John Prine. Long known for having younger and often up-and-coming artists open his concerts, the late songwriter hired Texas fiddler and songwriter Amanda Shires as his opening act for a sold-out concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts in 2015 – a concert that would turn out to be Prine’s final local performance (he died in 2020 of COVID-19 complications.) Shires, who was touring solo as the time, decided to bring along her favorite accompanist – Isbell. It helps that she was (and still is) married to him. That drew Prine’s gleeful appreciation, as he dubbed Isbell that night as “our special guest and her special guest.” As special sidenote: Shires will return to Lexington for a concert of her own at The Burl on April 19.

Another, perhaps more timely, elder who has championed Isbell’s music was David Crosby, the Woodstock generation hero who was intensely plain-speaking when it came to the music he liked and disdained. Crosby died on Jan. 18 at the age of 81.

“Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” Crosby told David Peisner of The New York Times in 2020. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.”

Crosby sang harmonies on “What’ve I Done to Help,” the lead-off tune to Isbell’s 2020 album “Reunions.” It was also with Isbell that Crosby made his final stage appearance, a 2022 Santa Barbara concert where the two sang the Neil Young protest anthem “Ohio” together.

“David had a conscience and a big heart that a lot of classic rock stars just either didn’t start out with or lost somewhere along the way” said Isbell to Chris Willman of “Variety” following Crosby’s death. “I think that’s part of what kept him alive. I know that he felt like he had run a lot of his old friends off, and he mentioned that a lot. But I also feel like he was proud of the person that he had become in his old age, and he was able to live with those regrets.”

In the end, what helps make Isbell’s own music so distinctive today continues to be the lasting inspiration of the artistic forefathers that traveled similar stylistic journeys a generation earlier and how those influences ultimately led to a sound, style and performance profile of his own that will very likely serve as a signpost to the next generation of Southern songsters.

“(David) treated a lot of things like it was his last. and I think that’s probably why the work that he did toward the end of his life was some of the best work that he ever did,” Isbell said in the “Variety” interview. “You know, I think John Prine was the same way. He thought, ‘I’m on borrowed time here for whatever reason, so I’m gonna make the best of it.’ And they got to go out with respect and with dignity and with a lot of people singing their praises.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with Peter One

When: Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 822 Hall Dr. at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond

Tickets: $75-$175 through

©2023 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


More from lexington herald-leader

Lexington Herald-Leader
Lexington Herald-Leader
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon