Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit return to Savannah Music Festival with new album, Georgia Blue

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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are making a welcome return to the Savannah Music Festival with a special concert at the Johnny Mercer Theater on Dec. 14.

Isbell began his career in the beloved Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, before striking out on his own in 2007. Over several albums, Isbell built a catalog of candid, heartbreaking, and relatable storytelling songs, many of which were inspired by his battle with alcoholism, and his marriage to his bandmate, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires of the supergroup The Highwomen.

Isbell is a four-time Grammy winner including two for Best Americana Album, for 2016’s Something More Than Free and 2018’s The Nashville Sound.

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While Isbell has a reputation for being one of the best songwriters of our time, his latest album, "Georgia Blue," features renditions of some of his favorite songs by Georgia artists including R.E.M., Drivin’ N’ Cryin,’ James Brown, The Indigo Girls, The Allman Brothers, and the Black Crowes. Isbell and the 400 Unit get help on the album from an amazing cast of guests including Bela Fleck, Brandi Carlile, Julien Baker, and John Paul White of the Civil Wars.

Jason Isbell performs during the Americana Music Association Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.
Jason Isbell performs during the Americana Music Association Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

“That was a blast,” said Isbell. “It was a spur of the moment decision, really. When I saw Georgia might go ‘blue’ in the presidential election, I thought it would be fun to make a covers record of Georgia songs. I just tweeted it right then. It wasn’t something that I planned. I was really happy when it happened for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons being that it gave us an excuse to go into the studio and record a bunch of songs that I already knew were great songs.

“I didn’t have to worry about coming in with all my homework done and showing everybody the songs. It was easy from that stand-point. It was challenging, creatively, to figure out how to deliver the material, but that’s a fun challenge.”

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"Georgia Blue" must have been a welcome respite after the release of 2020’s "Reunions," an album Isbell wrote and recorded during the pandemic that was fraught with marital tensions and self-doubt. "Reunions" was produced by Dave Cobb, who has produced all of Isbell’s records since 2014’s breakout "Southeastern." "Reunions" boasts a richer, more detail-heavy sound than his previous albums.

Jason Isbell performs at the 2021 Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction & Celebration at the Moody Theater on Thursday October 28, 2021 (Robert Hein for American-Statesman)
Jason Isbell performs at the 2021 Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction & Celebration at the Moody Theater on Thursday October 28, 2021 (Robert Hein for American-Statesman)

“We talked about that long before we went into the studio, and decided that we wanted something that was hi-fidelity and clean,” said Isbell. “We went so far as to get new equipment. He has a couple machines, I think one came from Mark Knopfler [Dire Straights]. He brought in new gear to make sure we got the sounds that we wanted. Not a lot of producers would do that, spend their own money on stuff.”

Although Isbell aimed for a higher quality recording on "Reunions," he always puts the songs first and tries not to fall into the trap of focusing too much on the sonics.

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“A lot of times I thinks artists who don’t feel super confident in their songs will spend a great deal of time and money trying to find the right sound. I don’t really do that. I try to find the sound to serve the songs, but I’m not going to do that much in the studio and I’m not going to switch between a bunch of different producers and equipment and recording methods, because I just try to rely on the strength of the song first and foremost.

“Writing songs, sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not,” Isbell continued. “Luckily, lately it’s been coming pretty easily for me. I worked on a movie over the summer in Oklahoma, so I had a lot of downtime, so I wrote quite a few songs. Once I sort of got the tap unclogged, they’ve been flowing pretty easily since then. Sometimes it’s like pulling your own teeth.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performs during ShoalsFest at McFarland Park in Florence, Alabama October 5, 2019.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performs during ShoalsFest at McFarland Park in Florence, Alabama October 5, 2019.

The movie Isbell worked on this summer was “Killers of the Flower Moon,” directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and based on the non-fiction crime book by David Grann. It is Isbell’s first foray into acting.

“That was a crazy thing to be a part of,” recalled Isbell. “It was nice just watching everybody work at that level. Everybody from the hair and makeup people to the crew to the cast, everybody seemed to be good at their job.

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“With songwriting, you’re really just trying to tell stories the same way you do with movies, so it was enlightening for me to see somebody tell a story at that level. The production was just huge. Pretty much anything Marty [Scorsese] wants to happen, they make it happen.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Opening for Isbell and the 400 Unit is Brittney Spencer, an incredibly talented singer-songwriter originally from Baltimore, but based in Nashville. Spencer, who released her debut EP, "Compassion," last year, also sings on "Georgia Blue," and may join Isbell and his band onstage.

“I feel really lucky that Brittany has the time to do things like Georgia Blue, and open shows for us, because she’s so incredibly talented,” said Isbell. “We’re fortunate that not everybody know that, yet. The word is spreading...we were lucky enough to snatch her up before she became super famous.”

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Isbell’s concert at Johnny Mercer Theater will require proof of vaccination, which at this point in the pandemic is more and more common, but was controversial when Isbell became one of the first touring artists to demand it.

Brittany Spencer
Brittany Spencer

“It never should have come down to us,” said Isbell. “If we had any kind of leadership in place, whatsoever, artists and promoters and venues wouldn’t have to have these stances.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer for me. Having a vaccine mandate, or certain kinds of restrictions at these shows make it possible for us to continue to go out and play these shows. I’m never going to go out and do it in a way that is lackadaisical and dangerous. When we’re offering a concert, it’s not a hospital, it’s not a grocery store, it’s not a shelter, it’s not something people have to have to survive. It ‘feels’ necessary, especially for people like us who make music for a living, but if we’re being honest with each other, civilizations have existed without live concerts. People have survived and populations have grown with out live music. It’s not something that’s a necessity for survival. And taking that into account, if we’re going to do it, we should do it in a way that is fun and enjoyable, and not dangerous and nerve-wracking.”

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Since taking this strong stance, Isbell has been an active unofficial spokesman for COVID vaccination, often appearing for interviews on shows like “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” and even a talk with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Maybe it’s because I have an Alabama accent,” Isbell mused. “It’s interesting to people when I say things that aren’t stupid. I think that’s taken me a long way in this world, to tell you the truth.”

IF YOU GO

What: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit w/ Brittney Spencer

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 14

Where: Johnny Mercer Theater, Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe ave.

Cost: $39-125

Info: savannahmusicfestival.org

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Jason Isbell talks new album Georgia Blue ahead of show in Savannah GA

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