Jason Isbell, either as a songwriter or with his band The 400 Unit, dominated the Americana Honors & Awards, winning three of the six performance categories at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville Sept. 12, as Pollstar prepared to go to press. It marks an absolute and total turnaround from his life of more than 10 years ago.
His marriage was in shambles and he’d already been kicked out of his old band, the Drive-By Truckers (though he and DBT founder Patterson Hood have since reconciled).
Isbell, now 39, began performing solo and, starting with friend and bassist Jimbo Hart, formed Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – named for a mental health facility in Florence, Ala. – made up mostly of artists based in and around Muscle Shoals, Ala.
The band now includes Hart, guitarist Sadler Vaden, drummer Chad Gamble and keyboardist Derry deBorja.
In time, The 400 Unit was joined by a friend and fiddle player, Amanda Shires, who got her start at 15 playing with Bob Wills’ band, the Texas Playboys.
When she’s not recording or touring her own solo career, she records with Isbell and the band and joins them on tour. But her importance to Isbell reaches far beyond that of a musical collaborator.
“She saved his life,” Shires’ manager, Brian Penix of Vector Management, says somberly.
Shires and Isbell were acquainted for several years before they began dating in 2011, married in 2013 and had a daughter, Mercy Rose, two years later.
Shires convinced Isbell to enter rehab, learned to trust him and they fell in love.
Life is good these days for Isbell and Shires, and it shows.
Both of their careers have taken off on steep, upward trajectories with each of their last two albums. Both are adored by their vastly expanding fan bases and the music community alike.
“I remember when I was a teenager, I was learning how to play guitar and listening to Eric Clapton,” Isbell tells Pollstar.
“He led me back to blues artists who over time went back to Robert Johnson, who led me back even further to West African music.” Isbell and Shires’ relationship was sparked by the other’s need to absorb as much music as they could and to study it as deeply, he says.
“As long as I’ve known her, from the very beginning of our relationship as friends, she was listening to every different kind of music, and that’s what we bonded over. It’s come into fruition. I feel that, stylistically, this album of hers [To The Sunset] is the first time she’s been able to just be herself completely. You can hear that her taste is all over the map just from listening to the record. You can hear that in her music. That’s sort of the way records should be these days, in all honesty.”
Isbell and Shires, perhaps not coincidentally, each dropped highly acclaimed albums in the last year-plus. His The Nashville Sound marks the third straight album that raises the bar for him – and that’s saying something, after the critical raves bestowed on 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free.
The latter won Grammy Awards for Best Americana Album and “24 Frames” as Best American Roots Song. The Nashville Sound this year repeated the feat for album and “If We Were Vampires” for best song.
The album and song duplicated that performance at the Americana Music Honors & Awards, with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit adding an award for Best Duo Or Group, for a career total of nine wins and 16 AMA nominations.
Shires has been recording on her own since 2005, but it was My Piece Of Land in 2016 that proved to be a critical breakthrough, helping bring the Americana Music Association’s best emerging artist trophy to the living room mantel in 2017.
To The Sunset has been hailed as a work that destroys genre labels. Produced by Nashville uber-producer Dave Cobb, the record gleefully obliterates the borders between Americana and dance music – Shires’ fiddle playing nearly takes a back seat to the synths and loops that would be at home on a pop record.
Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association – Amanda Shires
Amanda Shires performs onstage during the 19th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference at Mercy Lounge on September 12, 2018 in Nashville.
“Americana has always been pretty inclusive for the most part,” Shires tells Pollstar. “That’s lucky for me, because where else would I go? As for the evolution of my music I can’t, knowing my own self, predict where that’s going to go because you never know where you’re going to end up. When I did My Piece of Land, I was pregnant and dealing with hormones. So that record to me is more introverted.”
To The Sunset is less inward-looking, but faces forward – sometimes darkly – and is sprinkled with references to motherhood (“Charms”), self-doubt (“Mirror, Mirror”) and devil-may-care abandon in “Break Out The Champagne.”
“This new record has elements of things I’ve done in the past but, after having a child, I felt a lot more confident, and all through the process it changed for me,” Shires says. “ I can turn it up if I want because there’s nobody telling me what I can and can’t do. We’re putting our own records out.”
In addition to the two albums, there’s the touring – together and separately – along with 3-year-old Mercy, a duty they happily share when their tours diverge. But when their itineraries cross paths, the reunions are a treat for them as well as their fans as they drop in on each other’s shows.
Fortunately for everyone, both of the artist’s teams work collaboratively to ensure the family has quality time together. Isbell’s team of pros includes agent Andrew Colvin of WME and manager Traci Thomas, who’s been with him from the old Drive-By Truckers days. Shires’ team includes agent Jonathan Insogna, also of WME; and manager Brian Penix of Vector Management (and a former promoter at NS2 in Nashville, where he’d already worked with them many times before becoming her manager).
“We’ve managed to keep ticket sales and attendance in balance,” Thomas tells Pollstar. “Jason says, ‘I want the ability to play arenas but don’t want to play them,’ because a lot gets lost in translation and it’s better for the fan” to play in more intimate venues. “Southeastern changed things for him,” Colvin agrees.
“There was a faster uptick in ticket sales and it changed the trajectory. In my opinion, his records before that were great, too, but that one really changed the world for him.”
Shires is having her own shot at stardom by following her own irrepressible muses. “One of the things that excites me about working with Amanda is the fact that she’s not there to make an Americana record; she’s there to make music,” Penix says. “Let’s just make some great music and when we plan these shows and these tours, let’s make it a celebration of life. That’s the goal. It’s important to her to be a good role model for her daughter.”
Shires says she and Isbell are still learning how to balance careers and family on the road.
“We really are just now trying to figure that out,” she says. “We do what we do, as cliché as it sounds, one day at a time and try to make the best decisions that we can.
“I feel fear daily because I’m not at this spot yet in my career where I can always have her, or them, with me,” Shires continued. “But I keep trying to tell myself that you can’t raise a brave, strong girl unless you can be one.”
Isbell chimed in, after a second or two of perfectly timed comic silence that they both often do as they play off each other in conversation. “I’m trying my best to be a brave, strong girl as well.”
Shires has had solo dates in small, but quality rooms this year including the 314-capacity City Winery in Nashville and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall (900-cap) in Florida, but has spent much of her time in 2018 opening for Tommy Emmanuel and close family friend John Prine.
Isbell’s tour history is more extensive, but Shires is certain to give him a run for it with more headline dates and festival looks on the drawing board for 2019. Over the last three years, he’s submitted reports to Pollstar averaging 2,924 tickets and grosses of $106,749 per show.
Both will wrap up separate tours at the end of this month. But in October, they’ll both head back to Nashville to prepare for Isbell’s latest residency at historic Ryman Auditorium, six shows Oct. 22-24 and 26-28, following the Oct. 19 release of Live From The Ryman, recorded during last year’s residency.
October at the Ryman has become a tradition for Isbell, and nicely illustrates what’s happened with his career overall in the last five years. His first sold-out appearance at the Mother Church in 2013 moved 2,279 tickets for a gross of $62,583. The following year, the Ryman booked him for three nights. The year after that, for four. His 2017 October run played six nights, sold 13,532 and grossed $621,324.