Jason Isbell is the King of Americana, and upon that judgement there is no question. He’s earned this distinction by releasing a succession of very highly-regarded albums that have set records for sales pace from an independent artist, rewriting what we thought would ever be possible from the Americana crowd, including multiple #1’s on country and rock charts, and a nomination from the CMA Awards. Jason Isbell is the benchmark all other Americana acts set their hopes to. He is the model for success on one’s own terms in music.
What is fair to question is just what all that means to country music in 2020. Where before the current widespread political acrimony and some recent comments, Jason Isbell enjoyed virtually universal praise from independent country fans right beside the Americana faithful—and intermingling and camaraderie was common between the two—now it’s a different story. Similar to Sturgill Simpson, the topic of Jason Isbell has become distinctly polarizing for country fans, even if you will never hear a discouraging word from the fawning media. Where before all of independent roots music displayed a united front behind Jason Isbell as their boy, now there is infighting and friction.
This polarization is partly due to certain songs Isbell has penned, but it’s mostly a circumstance of public comments that have put Isbell at odds with country music’s more conservative fan base. All of a sudden the rednecks that used to sing along to “Outfit” or tear up over “Cover Me Up” are quick to distance from Isbell, and cast him off as a product of “woke” culture—an accusation Isbell would likely not deny.
“I think to get to a certain level as a creative person, you have to have an open mind,” Isbell told The Tennessean ahead of the new release—one of scores of lengthy features on the songwriter that have been posted in recent days. “That doesn’t usually allow you to point the finger and blame large groups of people. And if you can’t blame large groups of people, then you’re not gonna make a very good conservative.”
This (and many other) statements from Jason Isbell underscore his inherent hypocrisy that is at the heart of the newfound hatred for the man and his music. To claim open-mindedness, and that blaming “large groups of people” is solely the practice of conservatives—while of course lumping conservatives into a large group of people—is the type of arrogance that rightly angers listeners on the right. Along with other claims from Isbell such as conservatives can’t make good songwriters, which is clearly not true, Isbell is actively going out of his way to impugn certain portions of his audience that helped ensconce him in such a prominent position in American music.
This isn’t just about a difference in political ideologies. Conservative country fans have completely embraced more left-leaning performers for decades. Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, James McMurtry, Todd Snider, and more recently artists like B.J. Barhman of American Aquarium have connected with fan bases despite outspoken political differences because there was still an overlying sense of respect. The difference with Isbell is that respect appears to no longer be present. Of course, Isbell and others will tell you these are unprecedented times, and that’s the reason political backbiting must be broached. But ultimately, if you’re alienating and pushing away the elements of your fan base you believe most need to heed your message, how much of an agent for change are you really being? If anything, you’re exacerbating the polarization, and burning the bridges that can build understanding and the open-mindedness you purport to advocate for.
It’s within this contentious environment that Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit deliver Reunions to what will be thunderous and virtual universal applause from critics, while many conservative country fans will write him off without a fair listen. But like most things in politics and life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Jason Isbell is not a politician, he’s a songwriter. And whether Isbell himself practices what he preaches, unless you want to limit the musical enjoyment in your life, it should be your imperative to push their own biases aside, and approach the music with an open heart.
Unfortunately, that’s not particularly easy for Isbell’s naysayers when Reunions starts out with the 6-minute and 40-second dirge that is “What’ve I Done to Help.” It’s not as much the message or even the initial mood of the song as it is the tail end of it that mistakes repetitiveness for creativity, while a slide guitar utilizing the cutout in a guitar body finds the highest, most shrill notes possible, and punishes your ears for a merciless period of time. Ending the album with this effort would have been unfortunate. Beginning with it and releasing it as an early single was all the ammunition Isbell’s naysayers needed to avoid getting sucked into a pre-order package.
But Reunions shows dramatic improvement from there, even if like so many Dave Cobb-produced projects, its effects are diluted by the dingy film the audience is charged to listen through, like a dusty residue from the asbestos in the antiquated duct work of Studio ‘A’ in Nashville coating all of the recordings. And aside from really one song (“Be Afraid”), and really only one portion of it that The Tennessean concludes is “as blunt call to action as [Isbell’s] ever delivered” for basically labeling anyone’s music that is unwilling to get political as worthless, Reunions doesn’t really feel like a political work at all.
The specificity of detail found in “Dreamsicle” makes for a dreamy and compelling story. The wordsmithing that had made Isbell so highly regarded across genre appears once again in the song “River,” while “St. Peter’s Autograph” has a very John Prine feel to it—only appropriate if not poignant because the two were such close friends over the years.
Reunions benefits from so much of Isbell’s personal life being interwoven into the narratives, and many fans of his being intimate with those details where you don’t need guideposts to decipher the messages and morals. “Overseas” about his wife Amanda Shires being away from home, and “Letting You Go” about his young daughter Mercy, they come with an extra weight when you know the names and faces.
That’s especially true about the well-written “Its Gets Easier” about Isbell’s sobriety. As judgemental as some politically-charged comments from Isbell may feel to some, none are as misguided and callous as those critics of his who say his powers tapered off after he kicked the sauce. “It Gets Easier” proves that’s not the case. Besides, Isbell’s 2013 opus Southeastern was written and recorded under the same brain chemistry, and with the same band and production setup. Many will charge it’s been a downward slide since then. But that’s partially due to what an unattainable benchmark Isbell set for himself with that Southeastern record.
Isbell may never attain the same altitude in the Americana stratosphere that he did when he was breaking out after the Drive-By Truckers, and Reunions probably doesn’t get there specifically, even though many blue-checkmarked journalists will say otherwise to curry favor and win retweets from King Isbell himself. But that doesn’t mean his previous record The Nashville Sound and now Reunions don’t include top-caliber moments of American songwriting that will be remembered for generations to come, and should be, and continue to set a standard.
Reunions is decidedly more rock in style than Isbell’s previous albums, though with some more hushed and acoustic moments to balance it out. Other moments feel quite alive and inspired in ways general Americana rarely realizes. But this record will be best enjoyed in bits and pieces that most appeal to the end user as opposed to a cohesive work. There’s some inconsistency here, though it doesn’t injure the best of the individual efforts.
Not only is Jason Isbell at a crossroads with many country fans, country music is at a crossroads with Americana. Where before they felt like close cousins, with Americana taking in the critically-acclaimed and aging artists to offer support for their careers, now the delineation point feels more oriented toward political affiliation. Why is a country music website even covering Jason Isbell if the mere mention of his name will be a catalyst for accusations and infighting, instigated by the pointed comments of Isbell himself? Is this the world Americana wants for itself? Is this the legacy they want to bring to the table—one of isolating themselves from the conservative world under the guise of inclusivity and open-mindedness, while letting important messages about opening one’s heart and mind to other ideas and perspectives that once was at the heart of Americana get lost in political vitriol?
Perhaps a divorce is needed, or at least more space, like Tyler Childers has been saying recently about Americana. Because he’s right, Americana should not distract us from the issues facing country. Americana is for artists like Jason Isbell, who don’t, and have never fit in country anyway. Then perhaps fans can enjoy Isbell better from afar, while he can fully extract himself from the conservative world he apparently loathes.
But if conservative fans reciprocate with similarly closed-minded words and actions, that’s not reaching the moral high ground. Fans don’t have nearly the platform Isbell does, but it is a platform Isbell has earned from the sheer magnitude and power of his creative output, of which Reunions adds to. It’s what Isbell chooses to do with that platform and power in the future that will determine if he’s simply an ideologue preaching to a choir and a constituency, or if he learns how to utilize that power to open minds and broaden perspectives, which is the charge and the ability of Americana music at its finest. If Isbell is to fully realize that capability, then the first mind he needs to change, and the first perspective he needs to broaden, is his own.