Can a good band still be popular? In March of this year the New York Times magazine (admittedly, not necessarily a beacon of modern music commentary) ran a cover story entitled “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going”. What it told me instead is that it’s gone, at least for people ‘of a certain age’. If you aren’t into hip-hop (I’m not) or mega-hyped stars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, at least as visible for their marketing as their musicality, there’s precious little left. Now, I realize this isn’t exactly new news. And yes, I’m also aware that I’m not exactly the music world’s target demographic at present. (But still, the New York Times?!). Yet of the 25 records designated, sadly just one song – and one band – was for me, and that was ‘If We Were Vampires’, the recent “hit” by the band Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, who are easily one of the finest bands of the moment, and definitely still on the rise.
Oddly, I probably first gravitated to them because of Isbell’s wife, solo artist Amanda Shires – who was nothing short of mesmerizing in an intimate appearance I caught a year or so back at the enchanting Southgate House Revival, a converted church in Newport, Kentucky. Shires is now a regular member of The 400 Unit, contributing sinewy fiddle and ever-present harmonizing vocals, to a formidable 6-piece alt-country ensemble perhaps more reminiscent of Isbell’s former band, Drive-By Truckers, then of some of his earlier less rock-edged albums. The tune The Times featured is a lovely, heartfelt one, telling the tale of Isbell and Shires, though both still in their ‘30’s, looking ahead to how much time they have left together, and the inevitable point when one will be left without the other. It’s sparse, truly beautiful, and memorable enough that however long they do survive it should outlast them both. But it’s at least somewhat of an outlier on their latest album, 2017’s progressive masterpiece The Nashville Sound, on which the band, the devastating band, really lets loose on burners like ‘Anxiety’, ‘White Man’s World’, ‘Hope The High Road’, and the irresistible, future classic track featured here, ‘The Cumberland Gap’.
Could Isbell be a next generation Neil Young, one of his avowed biggest influences, or even something of a Southern Springsteen? Possibly. Hailing from hardscrabble rural Alabama, he can embody the same working class hero persona, and The Boss himself has touted his captivating, character-driven songwriting. Can the band be big? Well, they did just win a Grammy for Best Americana Album for The Nashville Sound, and Isbell has won four Grammys in all, as well as numerous honors from the Americana Music Association. So yeah, maybe there’s hope, mainstream hope, for them, and more importantly for some other genre-sharing bands like them. And, unlikely as it is, maybe next years New York Times list won’t be populated (nearly) exclusively by rappers and teen queens.