Georgia Blue — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
On November 5, 2020, two days after Election Day and two days before President Biden realized victory, Georgia’s vote counts were slowly – agonizingly slowly – tilting away from Donald Trump. Seeing the momentum turning, Jason Isbell promised, for the whole world to see on Twitter, “a charity covers album of my favorite Georgia songs” if the state swung left. 11 months later, it’s here. Georgia Blue, with its tasteful song choices and impeccable guest list, amounts to Isbell’s personal rock ‘n’ soul summer camp…with a purpose.
If you’re going to cover Georgia, and especially if you grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, you’ve got to bring some REM, and the album is bookended with the boys from Athens, “Nightswimming” is fronted by Isbell but benefits most from the appearances of Bela Fleck and Chris Thile, showing off their banjo and mandolin chops in a loose, front-porch take on the Automatic for the People track.
The record also gives members of Isbell’s The 400 Unit chances to stand out. “Honeysuckle Blue” has guitarist Sadler Vaden taking the lead on the Drivin N Cryin cut (Sadler did time with the band before linking up with Isbell), and this version fires up not one, but two nasty Southern rock guitar solos. And fiddle player (and singer-songwriter by her own damn self) Amanda Shires, recently heard lighting fire to John Prine’s “Saddle In The Rain” on the tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, brings that fiddle to a pulsing, spaced-out version of Cat Power’s “Cross-Bone Style.” Extending the family tree out a bit, Shires’ The Highwomen bandmate, Brandi Carlile, also shows up, along with Julien Baker, for a cover of Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears.”
Isbell has long shown an appreciation for music that stretches even beyond the loose boundaries of Americana. That genre-free approach, even when restricted to the artists of a single state, shows up in both his song choices and the friends he’s invited to the party. Adia Victoria stops by to take the lead on Precious Bryant’s “The Truth” and gives it enough of her left-field blues to make it feel like an outtake from her excellent record A Southern Gothic.
Brittney Spencer does double duty, first with a thoroughly updated take on James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World,” then later on (joined by John Paul White) a relaxed version of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” It’s worth noting that Victoria and Spencer, like many of the artists on Georgia Blue, have recorded and/or toured with Isbell – the whole project has a perfectly loose, off-the-cuff feel, just friends makin’ music together.
Among Isbell’s many talents, guitar playing and songwriting usually come to mind before his vocal chops. But, perhaps buoyed by the absolute sense of fun and adventure present throughout the project, the man downright cuts loose on a couple of tracks, including The Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation’ (featuring the band’s former drummer, Steve Gorman) and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Those other gifts, of course, are still present. He and his band, along with keyboardist Peter Levin, tear through The Allman Brothers Band’s instrumental slice of 70s jammy goodness “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and listeners can see how the sharp humor and heartache of a writer like Vic Chesnutt influenced Isbell’s own style on “I’m Through.”
The album wraps with a now-familiar cover of REM’s “Driver 8” (again featuring John Paul White). Dialing down the guitars in favor of fiddle, piano and accordion, Isbell shows a willingness to follow a song wherever it leads him, even if it means ceding the spotlight. After all, his stated reason for making this album was “an excuse to record these songs with my band and some friends.” And, of course, to see Georgia go blue.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Sometimes Salvation” – two of Isbell’s biggest influences are The Rolling Stones and Southern rock, and The Black Crowes include all of that in one Georgia-shaped package.
Order Georgia Blue (digital release October 15, CD and vinyl available November 29): https://ffm.to/georgiablue