Very soon, Australians will get the chance to experience live one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last two decades. Winner of four Grammy Awards, American musician Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit are heading to the country for cracking shows in Sydney and Melbourne.

Every time I’m at a gig, I often wonder how the artist I’m watching will be perceived in the future. I mean it in the sense of, did attendees at the Sex Pistols concert at Saint Martins College in ‘75 feel they were witnessing history? Probably not. 

Odd mental quirks aside, how many acts of today’s circuit will be highly regarded in a couple of decades? What concerts of our time will provoke that effusive “wait, you were there?!” response among our nephews and grandchildren when we proudly show them our faded ticket stubs? 

I’m certainly no clairvoyant, —if I were, I would probably be sports betting right now— but I have the feeling Jason Isbell will end up with a body of work that will earn him a place among the most significant singer-songwriters of the first half of the 21st century.

Jason Isbell is the best lyric writer of my generation. He lives at a level where even great writers can only visit. John Mayer.

Born in Green Hill, Alabama, Isbell was raised in a modest household where music was part of everyday life. His uncle was an amateur musician and his grandfather was a pentecostal preacher who played multiple instruments. “When I was born we lived in a trailer in a mobile home in my grandparents’ yard, and the only childcare was that I would stay with my grandparents,” he told George Saunders in an interview for GQ, “my grandad would teach me from really early on how to play… it started at probably six with a mandolin because my hands were so small.”

Isbell is the quintessential Americana artist, someone capable of cohesively weaving together the various traditions that conform the musical ethos of the United States. Gospel, folk, blues, country, and rock converge at a sonic crossroads where the devil had stripped each of these elements of their individuality, ending up with a unique beast that sounds like all of them and like none. In each of his songs, he denotes a profound reverence not only for American culture but for the history of popular music of the 20th century, his sound is a carefully crafted brew of influences that range from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Sonny Landreth and Pink Floyd.

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“At one point he took me to the record store and bought me the Robert Johnson complete recordings box on cassette,” Isbell confided in a conversation with Rick Rubin, “but him being a preacher and me being ten or eleven years old, he decided to overdub all the songs onto a blank cassette except for things like Travelling Riverside, songs that had anything that he considered to be obscene.” 

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Thematically, Isbell’s work mirrors a culture torn between tradition and progression, a society constantly forced to re-evaluate its values. And just as America has had its ups and downs, so has Jason’s life. 

Having made a name for himself as a guitar virtuoso in the local bar scene, his breakthrough came in 2011 when he was invited to join the acclaimed Southern rock project Drive-By Truckers, led by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. At only 22 years old, Isbell managed to become an essential part of the band, sharing guitar, vocal, and writing duties with the group’s founders. 

He recorded three lauded albums with the band between 2003 and 2006, a successful run that was unfortunately cut short. “I was making money, and there were drugs and alcohol and all that kind of stuff,” he said to comedian Marc Maron on his podcast, “During that time there were a lot of those just terrible nights where you do things that you feel horribly shameful about… like waking up with blood everywhere and somebody screaming and slapping you, thinking you’re dead.” 

Despite their critical success, and despite the Truckers being anything but saints, they had decided Isbell’s erratic behavior was too much. First, he got divorced from his wife, Drive-by Truckers bass player Shonna Tucker, and eight months later, he received the dreaded ultimatum. “They called and said, ‘you need to take some time off to try to get your shit straightened out’ and I said well, I don’t want you touring as this band if I’m not with you. And they said ‘all right, well, then you’re not with us anymore. Goodbye.’”

Then and there began what is surely the lowest point of his career, a period where he recorded three aimless, lukewarm albums including two with his project The 400 Unit, a band made up of musicians from the Muscle Shoals area in Alabama. 

It was until 2012, that he entered rehab at Cumberland Heights in Nashville, thanks to the support and intervention of his new partner and bandmate, singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires.

Jason Isbell’s phoenix-like rise came in 2013, the year when he and Shires got married and Southeastern, his fourth studio album was released. 

I have a wide range of musical tastes, one that goes from Bach to Kendrick Lamar, from John Coltrane to The Cramps. And I have to say, Country and Americana were genres I could never get into. With exceptions I could count on one hand, (Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle) I honestly hated everything about it. The southern drawl, the tingling repetitive guitar, the pedestrian lyrics, I really could not stand it. The reasons? Who knows. Probably because of snobbery, or perhaps prejudice, prejudice originated from terrorized screenings of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning or too many readings of Flannery O’Connor.

It was around 2014 that a dear friend from Tennessee, hellbent in changing my mind, gifted me a copy of Southeastern. To be honest, my first spin was out of guilt,  prepared to suffer the ride like a child forced to behave at the dentist. Little would I know I was in front of one of the top ten albums of the decade. What impressed me immediately was its sophisticated songwriting, writing that reminded me of my favorite lyricists like Elvis Costello or Leonard Cohen, each song made me feel as if I were reading a collection of short stories instead of listening to a country album. 

“I’m kind of picky about songwriters, you know,” opined Country icon John Prine about the album, “But when I heard Southeastern, it just killed me. I loved it. I like songs that are clean and don’t have much fat on them — every line is direct, and all people can relate to it. That’s what I try to do, and that’s what Jason does. I really haven’t heard anybody that different in probably 30 years.”

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Isbell’s lyrics flow like heightened conversations around a bonfire, naturalistic odes to the unlucky, overworked, and underprivileged. With notable affection, he sings to the blue-collar worker, to the abandoned lover, to the convict, to all those people in desperate need of redemption. His characters are deeply flawed and they do not always end up making the right choices, yet, Isbell portrays them with profound dignity. Although his aching voice and nimble guitar are firmly planted in the south, his lyrics are relatable to anyone who has made a mistake in life, to anybody who has lost, or simply put, to anyone who has felt like crap at any point in their lives. It’s because of this, and much more, that Jason Isbell is the Country artist for those who don’t like Country. This is music for anyone who understands pain.

Since Southeastern, Isbell’s career has been on an upward curve, releasing critically acclaimed records as a solo artist and with his band, The 400 Unit, named after a mental treatment facility in Florence Alabama where patients get to go downtown once a week with a $15 buck allowance to grab lunch on their own.

Aside from winning four Grammy Awards out of an equal number of nominations, he has won multiple times at the Americana Music Honors & Awards, and in 2017 was named the official Artist-in-Residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Isbell also contributed the song ‘Maybe it’s Time’ to the soundtrack of the 2018 version of A Star is Born, performed by Bradley Cooper in one of the most touching scenes of the movie.

In 2021 it was announced that Isbell would have a role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon. The period drama is set in 1920s Oklahoma and tells the story of the Reign of Terror, a streak of violence against Osage Native Americans whose land was brimming with oil. Isbell will star alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

Australians will have the opportunity to see live one of the greatest songwriters in the world today, in two special presentations, one at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, and the other at the Palais in Melbourne. Prepare yourself to witness history.



Wednesday, 5th of April, 2023 – Enmore Theatre Sydney

Thursday, 6th of April, 2023 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne


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