Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new Live From The Ryman, whose rendition of the romantic “Cover Me Up” is premiering exclusively below, is a bit of a victory lap from a four-year period that vaulted the Drive-By Trucker to Americana icon status.
Due out Oct. 19, Live From the Ryman hails from six sold-out dates Isbell and company performed at the venerable Nashville venue since the release of 2013’s Southeastern. During that period Isbell snagged four Grammy Awards, including best Americana album for 2015’s Something More Than Free and last year’s The Nashville Sound, and eight Americana Music Awards, with album of the year honors for all three of his releases since Southeastern.
“I think what we’ve doing has definitely caught on a lot over the past few years,” Isbell tells Billboard. “A lot of that is due to the fact it’s been better quality than what I’d done in past. When I quit drinking and going out after the shows and staying up all night…all the success I have received over the last few years has been due to focusing more on the songs and paying attention to every lyric, every song on the album. I set out to keep making records people wanted to listen to all the way through, no filler material, just focusing on ‘Let’s see how good I can get 10 songs.'”
A live album has also been part of Isbell’s vision for the past few years. “The plan was to get these three records recorded and released and then make a live album that documented this period of time,” he says. And while he and the 400 Unit “do our best everywhere,” the Ryman remains a special show any time the group plays there.
“We don’t go into it planning on playing better than we do anywhere else,” he says, “but the fact is the more feedback and the more response we’re getting from the audience, the more energized you are on stage. Usually in that room there’s people who travel from long distances and they buy their tickets early and they make a big trip out of it. So when they get to the show they’re ready to be there and ready to participate, and that probably elevates our games as a band.” A live recording, he adds, also puts some deserved focus on the 400 Unit.
“It’s important for me that people know the role the band plays in the performances of the songs, and how much we’ve changed over the past eight or nine years since we started playing together,” Isbell says. “I think we’ve developed a whole lot as musicians. We’ve spent a lot of time around each other and listening to each other, getting to play and know each other ’til we have almost that telepathy you develop after you’ve been playing and touring together. I think this live album is a good display of that.”
Isbell, who operates his own Southeastern Records label, is off the road for the rest of this year, and he’s starting to eyeball a follow-up to The Nashville Sound. But he’s not hurrying to do that, either, despite the album’s Top 5 showing on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 debut on the Rock, Folk, Country and Independent album charts. “That’s the good thing about having my own label; I don’t have to be on anybody else’s schedule,” he says. “I’ll wait until I have a set of songs and then set a deadline. That’s when I’ll maybe work a little harder, leading up to that ’cause I don’t want to waste my time and my money in the studio. I just want to make a good enough record that you can tour behind for a couple of years. I’d rather wait until I’ve got the right songs to put out and do it then rather than release something because somebody says it’s time to.”