All Is Not Lost In Country Music
Jason Isbell & Chris Stapleton at Merriweather Post Pavilion
By Max Stewart
These days, when you turn on country radio it sounds like bad Def Leppard with a Southern accent. Thankfully, there is hope for those who long for the classic sound of country greats such as Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Prine and Waylon Jennings. Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton are part of the country scene’s new saviors, and by golly it was a treat to see them co-headline at the historic Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD during a beautiful Saturday night in late June. Along with psychedelic alt-country phenom Sturgill Simpson, Stapleton and Isbell are bringing inspired and authentic country music back into the forefront. Put simply, these artists are a breath of fresh air for many Millennials (present company included) who are completely jaded by the cheesy, formulaic sound of the Nashville music machine that has skewed the term “country music” for an entire generation. Thanks to the renaissance of real musicians and songwriters, I have been inspired to go back and discover the formative country legends that existed during a refreshing time in music before the bro-country bullshit dominated the airwaves*.
And by the way, get the hell off my lawn! But I digress… Where was I? Oh yeah, it was a picturesque summer night and the amphitheater was packed with fans at MPP eager to hear the one-two punch lineup after the opener Frank Turner primed the crowd with a fantastic set of passionate folk.
Jason Isbell definitely leans more on the side of Americana / folk than the classic, gritty country sound of Chris Stapleton; however, both musicians clearly have something more heartfelt to sing about than their jeans and pickup truck. Isbell’s solo career has been a high-banner success, especially as of late. In my opinion, Isbell is the best modern songwriter out there, and his newest album Something More Than Free coupled with 2013’s Southeastern highlight his wordsmithing prowess. His most recent work is definitely more acoustic-based as compared to 2007’s Sirens of The Ditch, but it represents his best material that truly blossoms with his full band live. Isbell’s performance is captivating in a way that I have not felt with any other musician. His lyrics are so poignant and force the listener to reflect as we all grapple with the hardships of everyday life, which inevitably leads to a handful hair-tingling moments during the set. Let’s just say an Isbell show ain’t for the faint of heart…
Isbell opened the set with the hopelessly optimistic “If It Takes A Lifetime” from 2015’s Something More Than Free, setting the tone for the “everyman” lyrical themes that surface in many of his storytelling journeys. Despite being raised in the heart of the Bible Belt / musical mecca town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Isbell never shies away from writing about the inherent struggles that exist in religious, working class America. “You thought God was an architect, but now you know, he’s sitting in a black car ready to go,” is a line that you likely wouldn’t hear on mainstream FM radio, but the large crowd welcomed the substantive lyrics in “24 Frames” with open arms.
“Stockholm” highlighted the sublime vocal pairing of Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires, who can play a mean fiddle alongside her husband and has managed an impressive solo career on her own too. Isbell has been fortunate enough to prevail beyond the fog and struggles of alcoholism (getting clean was a major theme of his album Southeastern), and I could really feel the determined focus he has for sober life manifest itself during his fervent live performance. “My past a scary movie, I watched and fell asleep”; the sincerity was widespread as Isbell poured his heart into the brooding “How To Forget”.
“Traveling Alone,” is a tale of the desolate moments of the often times glorified life of a traveling musician. On the podcast “The Moment with Brian Koppelman,”Isbell recalled recording a quiet, muffled version of the vocal melody of this song into his phone while literally traveling alone and sitting on a plane waiting to take off. As the band went into the “The Life You Chose,” it seemed as though the members of the 400 Unit band were in full swing with the rhythm section fully locked in. The tune begs the eternal question of whether we as human beings are fulfilling our true potential with the people we love, and I watched the expressions of people from 18 to 68 in the audience reflect as Isbell lamented: “Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?”
Before the homegrown ballad “Alabama Pines,” Isbell quipped that the directions and details mentioned in the lyrics are “100% accurate,” so take note if you are ever in Talladega “on a weekend in October”. From 2001-2007, Isbell was a member of Drive-By Truckers where he penned some of the band’s strongest material, including two songs he performed at MPP: “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change”. Isbell demonstrated his advanced slide guitar skills during the Southern Gothic and rugged rock voyage “Decoration Day”. In fact, during the handful of lead licks throughout the set (including “Speed Trap Town”), it left me wanting to see more of Isbell’s electric guitar leads as the band jammed out sections of songs. I guess that’s what happens when you are a powerhouse guitarist AND songwriter: you have to choose which talent to focus on live (what a great problem to have as a musician). Guitarist Sadler Vaden also took the reins on guitar duties during “Never Gonna Change,” a defiant tune and the most rock ‘n’ roll section of the set.
“Cover Me Up” was a powerful moment of the show, especially during a line that clearly resonated with many people in the crowd: “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time.” If you were human and had any experience with the struggles of alcoholism personally or second-hand, it was hard to not get chills as the cheers wailed. The title track “Something More Than Free,” tells the tale of a working class man who dreams every night he’s “drowning in the dirt, but [he] thanks God for the work”. Isbell’s lyrical aptitude is uncanny and takes listeners on a contemplative trip that forces them to question the meaning of the mundane trials of day-to-day existence. Isbell actually studied English and Creative Writing at University of Memphis, before leaving to focus on his music career at 21 to join DBT.
The set closed with “Children of Children,” which Isbell has stated is about his parents raising him when they were very young; this represented a very poignant moment thanks to Isbell’s lead guitar flying high over the elegant chord arrangement that was all bound together by Shires, Vaden, Jimbo Hart (Bass), Chad Gamble (Drummer), and the Baltimore-native Derry Deborja (Piano/Organ). The epic, roaring melody during the outro was the perfect way to cap off his emotional whirlwind of a set.
It is difficult to follow the peaks of Isbell’s set, but Chris Stapleton was able to do so as he layered his soulfully-inspired vocals on songs that are undoubtedly country in their purist form. Stapleton’s path to his current success has definitely been unprecedented; he is already an established songwriter with over 150 writing credits and six-number one singles (including songs written for George Strait, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney and even Adele) and he performed from 2007-2010 with the bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. The past year has seen Stapleton skyrocket to singer-songwriter stardom. Stapleton’s album Traveller has garnered him with countless accolades that include a Grammy Award for Best Country Album and the Country Music Association Awards for New Artist of the Year, Best Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year.
What really sets Stapleton apart, in my opinion, is the uniqueness of his voice in shaping the songs. His soulful pipes make the songs feel like a perfect blend of Hank Williams Jr. and Stevie Wonder. As the crowd sang along to the steel-driven, four-on-the-floor breakup song “Nobody to Blame,” I could not help but feel the honky-tonk coursing through my veins. His raspy yet full-ranged vocals are an instrument of their own, and one that commanded the full attention of the Maryland audience throughout the set.
Stapleton pretty much played the entirety of his sole album during his performance, along with a handful of covers and songs from his time with The SteelDrivers. These included “Midnight Train to Memphis” and “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” which were both played early in the set and made it clear that we were gonna have a good ole, 180-proof throwdown.
Stapleton’s version of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “Was it 26” was a personal favorite, mainly because of his uniquely rugged take on a song that looks back on man’s hard partying, hazy twenty-something years: “I’m proud to say I’ve come around, but if I could have one wish: I’d like another try at 25, or was it 26?” Just like Isbell, Stapleton employs the assistance of his wife Morgane Stapelton on stage (What’s the saying? Behind every great man there’s a great woman), which provides a serene contrast to Stapleton’s gallant vocals, and the beautiful harmonization was evident in “More Of You”.
Before the tragic ballad “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” Stapleton solemnly let the crowd know that he wrote the lyrics in 2005 when the song was “fictitious,” only for the song to take on a more substantial meaning when his father died in 2013. Stapleton proved he has some serious guitar chops during the reverb-heavy “Might As Well Get Stoned,” a song that essentially takes a page from The Dude and says ‘fuck it’ to all the wicked ways of the world from heartbreak to violence.
His impressive band also played a raucous honky-tonk shuffle version of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” really dissecting elements of the song while adding a hillbilly swing. By the time Stapleton performed “Traveller” and “Fire Away,” I could not believe that he could withstand the nightly toll on his voice, as it was clear he was pouring every ounce of energy into each and every note. This made the show even more awe-inspiring; he had the audience in the palm of his hand during the many unique vocal inflections of the night.
Beyond the authenticity, Isbell and Stapleton have a mutual associate in Dave Cobb, who co-produced Stapleton’s Traveller and produced Isbell’s Southeastern and Something More Than Free (he has also worked with Sturgill Simpson). Morgane Simpson recorded a minimalist version of the classic “You Are My Sunshine” for Cobb’s record compilation project, Southern Family, which completely blew me away in a live format. Stapleton’s take on George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” may be his best-known song to date – in part due to performing the song alongside Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards – and the song clearly pulls at the heartstrings of a wide-range of listeners, as grandparents and teenagers alike were on their feet singing along for this main set closer.
As Stapleton encored with the heart-wrenching songs “Whiskey and You” and “Sometimes I Cry,” the age-spanning crowd slow danced and swayed in the moonlight in a steel guitar fueled bliss. I was kind of holding out that there would be some sort of collaboration between Stapleton and Isbell at some point in the evening, but by no means was I disappointed with two full sets from the alt-country titans (it was actually one of only a couple of shows that they co-headlined on their respective tours).
After the show, it felt like we had just seen boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson at Madison Square Garden. Ali and Robinson both had different methods of winning a match, but in the end they both got the job done by executing a thought-out method that always prevailed over some hothead going for the knockout at every punch. Two heavyweights of their craft, Isbell and Stapleton hit you in a way that an uninspired, over-produced “country” song that is going for the easy knockout never will.
Country music is in good hands folks, no need to worry. In fact, we might be part of a newly inspired era, so buckle up.
Jason Isbell’s Tour Dates: http://www.jasonisbell.com/shows/
Chris Stapleton’s tour dates: http://www.chrisstapleton.com/tour/
* A great source of interesting dialogue and history of the formative country artists is the podcast “Walking the Floor” hosted by Foo Fighters’ guitarist Chris Shiflett. Interviews include Brad Paisley, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Strurgill Simpson, Steve Earle, and many more.
Jason Isbell Setlist
If It Takes a Lifetime
How to Forget
The Life You Chose
Decoration Day (Drive-By Truckers song)
Speed Trap Town
Alabama Pines (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit cover)
Cover Me Up
Something More Than Free
Never Gonna Change (Drive-By Truckers song)
Children of Children
Chris Stapleton Setlist
Nobody to Blame
Midnight Train to Memphis (The SteelDrivers cover)
Outlaw State of Mind
Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey (The SteelDrivers cover)
Was It 26 (The Charlie Daniels Band cover)
More of You
Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore
Might As Well Get Stoned
You Don’t Know How It Feels (Tom Petty cover)
You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)
The Devil Named Music
Tennessee Whiskey (George Jones cover)
Whiskey and You
Sometimes I Cry