Jason Isbell's latest album, Something More Than Free, is journey through lives of many characters trying to keep it together in modern day America. As a songwriter, more than anything, Isbell is a storyteller. His songs are perfectly crafted mini-novels. In each one, he sets up a plot with a few broad strokes and then animates it with small, telling details. The songs on this album are populated by people facing desolate circumstances and trying to make it through. They outline a lifetime's worth of injustices, some small, some large. And they show characters trying to live their lives, and make the best of their circumstances. For all that dark material, the album has a buoyancy to it.
The album was produced by Dave Cobb, who is having a banner year. He also produced Chris Stapleton's Traveller, and the Southern Family compilation. These albums, along with Isbell's, all take classic forms and bring something fresh and new to them.
Isbell won two Grammies with the Something More Than Free album- Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song for the track called 24 Frames. The album has also been nominated for the Americana Music Association's Best Album of the Year.
I think the inconsistencies in the Grammy categories are telling. Americana? Roots Music? What's the difference? It seems that artists or albums get put into one category or another somewhat arbitrarily. Throw in the Country and Folk categories, and there is even more confusion. To my ear, Isbell's album sounds like Southern Rock and evokes some of the hit bands of 1970s, while also containing some faint echoes of Springsteen. But none of those comparisons are quite right, and there's nothing derivative about this collection.
For the most part, Isbell's band sticks to a simple instrumentation for Something More Than Free, with most tracks employing just electric or acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Isbell's wife, Amanda Shires, harmonizes on many of the tracks, but her violin is absent for much of the album. One exception is my favorite track, Hudson Commodore, where Shires provides a beautiful, spare counterpoint to the vocals on violin.
This was the best recording of Hudson Commodore that I could find on YouTube:
I like that they have added accordion to the live version of the song. It gives it a different color than the album version, though the beautiful harmonies on the chorus don't come through as well in this version.
After spending some time with Something More Than Free, I started listening to some of Isbell's other work. I found a wonderful recording of Traveling Alone, performed by Isbell and Shires.
Finally, here is a powerful performance of Cover Me Up from Austin City Limits: