I’ve watched Jason Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, command Nashville’s holy Ryman Auditorium. I’ve seen him at a big, fancy opera house in St. Louis. I’ve seen two performances at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, the state I now call home after eight months in Anniston.
I can think of no better place to see Isbell than at the Anniston Performing Arts Center.
Saturday will be another time I wish I could be back in town around the people I came to love. Often I belt Isbell’s “Alabama Pines” like an honest plea: “Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines….”
I’ll be singing too far away Saturday. In spirit I’ll be with fellow fans and friends on Noble Street later that night, raising a glass to the sold-out show.
Take a bow, Knox Concert Series. How great that organizers got the Green Hill native-turned-Grammy winner to return to northern Alabama, where his story is legend:
Out of his childhood trailer home, out of high school band days, out of the Drive-By Truckers due to drunkenness, out of rehab and out of the Muscle Shoals studios where he recorded the most well-written songs collected this decade — I won’t hear otherwise about 2013’s gutting yet hopeful “Southeastern” — Isbell went on his meteoric rise. He currently presides as king of Americana.
He and his wife, the also-brilliant singer-songwriter and fiddle-playing bandmate Amanda Shires, are now the toast of Nashville. Some say the records that followed “Southeastern” — “Something More Than Free” and 2017’s “The Nashville Sound” — are even better, even more marrow-cutting and revealing of the side of life that seems to fascinate Isbell: the side that most don’t see.
“Last of My Kind,” the lead-off to “The Nashville Sound,” is Isbell “trying to speak from maybe that 8 percent of me that is still the rural Alabama man who’s looking around and wishing everything would slow down a little bit,” he said in an interview with Garden & Gun magazine. The man “couldn’t be happy in the city at night / You can’t see the stars for the neon light.” And also: “the family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s five and dime.”
When I heard Isbell was coming to the high school auditorium, I thought about another interview he did. He reflected on fame, how strange it was to have $800 sneakers and neighbors with helicopters.
“I like not having to worry about paying the bills,” he told Men’s Journal, “but I have to watch myself, because I don’t come from money. Sometimes I leave an encounter or a conversation hoping that I didn’t come off as above my raisin’ …”
In Anniston, maybe he’ll feel back at home. Maybe he’ll feel something different singing a song such as “Outfit,” about working for his dad, who grinded as a house painter: “So don’t try to change who you are boy, and don’t try to be who you ain’t / And don’t let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy-man’s paint.”
Maybe he’ll look at the crowd and see his people, the small-town people of the like he’s mentioned as victims of the Southern stereotype. “It’s sort of a pop-culture phenomenon now, isn’t it?” he told The Ringer. “You’ve got ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ and everybody thinks it’s a really spot-on summation of what’s wrong with America. Most of that stuff is bull—.”
That stereotype, I think, is what people had in mind when I told them I was leaving the midwest to live in Anniston. “Where?” they’d say, making a face as if smelling something bad. “Alabama?”
I met people who struggled, yes. People, like people everywhere, dealing with depression, destitution, addiction. Yes, I met people who I felt were close-minded, people like people everywhere.
But what people everywhere don’t see is the altruism in a place like Anniston, where I recall Zinn Park frequently filling up with fruit and meat for the homeless. Outsiders don’t see how people here take care of their own, how there is a stubbornness that might be translated into a noble defiance of nonconformity.
“We ain’t never gonna change / We ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong,” Isbell sings in the Truckers’ hard-charging “Never Gonna Change.”
I can tie much of my time in the South to his music.
I can hear the rootsy line “my day will come, if it takes a lifetime” and see Piedmont locals discussing plans over McDonald’s breakfast. When “Codeine” comes on, I see happy patrons at the bar where some guy in the corner covered the waltzy tune.
I think of the beautiful hills in view from Anniston’s eastern bypass — a drive best enjoyed while blasting “Flying Over Water” or “Stockholm.”
When I hear “Speed Trap Town,” I recall a man at a high school football game who did indeed “sneak a bottle up the bleachers” like the man in the song (goes one unforgettable line: “These 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss”).
I recall Federal-Mogul laborers I met at the distribution center when I hear “Something More Than Free” (“And I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts / I’m just lucky to have the work / Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church / But I thank God for the work”).
I was sad to hear earlier this year about Federal-Mogul announcing steep layoffs. I was also sad to hear about wrecks piling up on that new bypass, and about that McDonald’s getting badly burned. These are all reminders that luck tends to skip the area.
But for a night, that will change.
Often before shows, Isbell says something along the lines of: “We’re gonna play some sad songs and have a good time.” Also custom is the audience’s applause in the middle of “Cover Me Up,” the one he wrote for his wife in which he announces: “But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff / Forever this time.”
What better place for that moment to unfold than in the Anniston Performing Arts Center? That will be a sweet sound — the sound of people rooting for someone who’s rooting for them.
Seth Boster is a former Star reporter now writing at the Colorado Springs Gazette.