The cover artwork is perfect. The stained-glass window pays tribute to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the “cathedral of country music”. The 126-year-old building was home for the Grand Ole Opry for decades, and everyone from Hank Williams to Neil Young to Foo Fighters have performed in its hallowed halls. In 2017, Jason Isbell and his trusty band, the 400 Unit, played six sold-out shows at the Ryman, which is where most of Live from the Ryman was recorded. While not a groundbreaking live album – the songs stick close to the studio arrangements – it’s an excellent snapshot of Isbell’s famously engaging shows.
The 13 songs that make up Live from the Ryman focus exclusively on tracks from Isbell’s last three studio albums (Southeastern, Something More Than Free, The Nashville Sound), which seems like an uneven choice when you consider the three excellent (if more obscure) albums that preceded them. But any notion that this album is lacking firepower is quickly dashed by the mid-tempo, guitar-heavy, heartland rock of “Hope the High Road” that opens the set. “I used to think that this was my town,” Isbell sings, seconds into the song’s opening chords. “What a stupid thing to think.” And they’re off and running. Despite an iffy drum mix on that first track – it sounds oddly delayed and glitchy – the band is in top form.
True to their studio counterparts, the songs on Live from the Ryman vary nicely in style and tempo. The urgent, rocking “Cumberland Gap” – featuring a soaring, soulful chorus from Isbell – fits in nicely alongside the acoustic folk of “Last of My Kind”. The thick, country-fried riffs of “Super 8” come on the heels of the sultry ballad “Cover Me Up”. The sold-out Nashville crowd eats it up, too.
The album’s quieter moments are dotted with vocal audience approval, which is only occasionally distracting. It seems odd to hear hooting and hollering during “Elephant”, Isbell’s stark tale of a friend’s cancer diagnosis, but the crowd keeps it quiet long enough to soak up the lyrics. “I’ve buried her a thousand times / Given up my place in line / But I don’t give a damn about that now / There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / No one dies with dignity.” As on most of the album, “Elephant” includes plenty of potent fiddle playing from 400 Unit member Amanda Shires (who also happens to be Isbell’s wife).
Isbell has never been one to shy away from heavy subjects or socially relevant topics, whether it’s about death, substance abuse, or his left-leaning politics (a subject he frequently approaches on social media – his Twitter feed is often hilarious). On Live from the Ryman, he checks off the latter with “White Man’s World”. “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war,” he sings, behind a sober, sturdy beat. “Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for.”
Jason Isbell is in many ways a quintessential artist – an earnest, deeply talented songwriter with strong, smart beliefs, wrapped in a soulful musical package. Live from the Ryman offers no big surprises for anyone who’s already a fan of his music. If you’re a newbie, this may be the perfect introduction.