At the conclusion of his six-night Ryman residency, Jason Isbell ended at the beginning: with a song from his Drive-By Truckers days, “Never Gonna Change.” About the occasionally stubborn sense of Southern identity, it rung also as a firm declaration, following “Maybe It’s Time” from A Star Is Born, that he’s never going to waver too far from who he truly is. Republicans can call him a member of the “unhinged left,” but he’ll double down on his convictions in an interview with MSNBC. And though he may sing about new transitions and tell new stories, his connection to the deep tradition of songwriting will never falter.
But the reason he can come back to the Ryman year after year and play for almost a week at a time is because his songs change along with his fans. Isbell’s work is expansive enough that one lyric might make you cry one year and marvel the next, because the listener’s reality is like a chemical reaction that varies from moment to moment and person to person. This is what humanity through music really is, anyway, story-songs where, somehow, the protagonist ends up being you and everyone at once.
So it’s not uncommon at an Isbell show to see people grabbing their partner at a particularly poignant moment or choking back a bit of tears — but it’s also likely that whatever song is driving those emotions will be different next year. Maybe the sting of the events in Pittsburgh made “White Man’s World” feel newly potent to a man who never before quite understood the privilege in his ability to safely pray. Maybe a loved one’s cancer diagnosis made “Elephant” hit the hardest (on Sunday, one man shouted “fuck cancer!” after it drew to a close). Maybe the birth of a child changed the meaning of “If We Were Vampires” for someone who knows one of life’s greatest gifts is growing old enough to see your children do the same. Maybe one year “Hope the High Road” feels like the optimism you need, and the next it’s the hope you just can’t find, but are frantically reaching for.
Still, every evening at this Ryman run has felt like a veritable Isbell Greatest Hits Collection, and the final show was no exception. Driven by the tight-as-ever 400 Unit (undoubtedly Americana’s — if not rock’s — best backing band), Isbell ran the gamut of the human experience: the stories of love, like “Vampires” and “Cover Me Up”; the stories of home, like “Alabama Pines”; and the songs that Isbell has used to make the personal so intensely political, like “White Man’s World.”
It’s also worth noting that, while Isbell is very open with his beliefs, his concerts aren’t rallies. He has eschewed the comfort of the cis, straight, white male experience by understanding that existing as anyone who doesn’t look like him — women, people of color, LGBTQ people — is inevitably and inherently political. His music itself does the pushing when he plays live.
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Isbell is also a study in how to reach live show perfection without sacrificing the spontaneity and thrill of a concert experience. Much of this is purely a product of talent, but perhaps it’s also a result of Isbell morphing with the tracks just as much as his audience does. His songs are snapshots in time as much as they are living, breathing things, and he knows how to move them throughout a show to challenge their meaning: ending the pre-encore set with “Anxiety,” a way to nod to the demons that can still plague him, even after another banner run at the Ryman. Placing “If We Were Vampires,” which puts such a mature spin on mortality, next to “Super 8,” where death was just something to be avoided if and when you can.
There are a million reminders to be glad to be alive at the end of an Isbell set. The magic comes from Isbell taking all that to heart, too.
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