After the seventh installment of Songs I Never Want To Hear Again, perhaps it’s time to give props to some of the really good music being made out there. We are blessed to have some really talented songwriters and musicians who continue to release really good music. Here are a couple of them.
Jason Isbell — his music has been categorized as Americana and alt-country. Getting past the genre descriptions, Isbell just writes and plays damn good music. Along with his band, The 400 Unit, Isbell rocks as hard as anyone does these days. He also can mellow out and tone it down with his acoustic material. Isbell’s songs are among the best ever written, and I’m not exaggerating about this at all. His wife (and bandmate) is Amanda Shires, a great singer-songwriter-fiddle player in her own right — and she provides a great musical and vocal counterpoint to his melodies.
A former hard-partying member of Drive-By Truckers, Isbell found sobriety and has become one of our best living songwriters. His breakout 2013 album, “Southeastern,” saw Isbell gain well-deserved recognition as one of our finest talents out there today. Songs like “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant” are masterworks in their beautifully and realistically descriptive stories of love and loss. And “Super 8” from the same album is a hard-rocking cautionary tale about really bad things that can happen on the road (“I don’t want to die in a Super 8 Motel…”). The “Southeastern” album led to Isbell’s sweep of the 2014 Americana Music Awards. It won Album of the Year, Isbell was named Artist of the Year, and “Cover Me Up” was named Song of the Year.
While Isbell writes a good bit about himself and his family, many of his characters are people, often from the Deep South, who are down on their luck and (think they) are making the best of things in their lives. His lyrics are so visual and descriptive, the imagery and situations so vivid, you feel like you know his characters by the time the song is over.
Isbell seriously writes the best songs. He plays some amazing guitar. And he sings his songs with a powerfully emotive voice. I can’t overemphasize that he really is that good. The best introduction to his work is his “Live From The Ryman” CD (album, collection of streams or downloads, whatever…). Isbell and the 400 Unit tear through the rockers and flow gently through the acoustic numbers, the arrangements serving the songs perfectly. Highlights include the three previously mentioned songs from “Southeastern,” along with 10 other classics from other albums. Buy or stream this album and you’ll likely get sucked in to buying the rest of his catalog.
Bruce Springsteen — his recent album with the E Street Band, “Letter To You,” is another solid chapter in the Springsteen collection of great music. The E Street Band is truly in great form, as evidenced by the fact that this album was recorded live in the studio in just five days.
It’s really interesting to hear Springsteen’s take on getting older, which he does with as much rocking energy as he did in his songs from days long since gone. Ghosts of the Boss’ old bandmates inhabit the tracks on the album as he looks back at the journey he’s taken. And at 71, Springsteen faces his mortality with the same attitude he faced his youth with songs like “Born To Run” back in the 1970s. Rock and roll is still his church; guitars and drums and saxophones are still sacramental. And even though he realizes there may not be as many years left, he’s approaching them with the same spirit of better days ahead that he’s always had.
In “Last Man Standing,” Bruce reflects on old his Castiles bandmates he lost along the way, remembering youthful gigs at places like the Knights of Columbus and the Legion Hall where the old men would remember the missing and gone: “You count the names as we count off the time.” Acknowledging that he’s older now just like they were, Bruce now counts the names of his missing as he still counts off the time. But Springsteen knows he still has gas in the tank, and there are miles left to travel on this journey.
Several years back, Kiss bassist (and reality TV star) Gene Simmons declared rock to be dead, accusing young fans of killing it by not supporting worthwhile acts. He asserted that streaming, file sharing and the new music business model have made it so artists can’t make an income from recorded music — and that’s true. (Let’s not forget COVID-19’s toll on live music, either.) As long as there are artists like Isbell and Springsteen still around, however, the report of rock’s demise is a bit premature.
– Catch John Wednesdays at Herbie’s, Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, this Friday on Facebook Live for his Social Distancing Concert, Saturday night at the Key Colony Inn, and Sunday night at Boondocks. Music available wherever you get your streaming. www.facebook.com/john.bartus