To Make a Hit Country Record, Jason Isbell Made a Record That Wasn't Country

Jason Isbell tops the charts with a country record that isn't really country.
Jason Isbell tops the charts with a country record that isn't really country.
David McClister

To the surprise of many, alt-country darling Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free quickly shot up to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot Country chart. Soon after, he would top the Rock and Folk charts as well, selling more than 46,000 units in the first week of the record's release. For fans that have been watching Isbell since his work with Drive By Truckers, this success represented a sort of turning point. Perhaps more importantly, it lends further credibility to the argument that “authentic country music” is on its way back, and the bros are out.

But in listening to Something More Than Free, it is easy to recognize that this album is not strictly, or even primarily, a country record. On tracks like “If It Takes a Lifetime,” the upbeat, working man ballad that kicks it all off, the country influence is clear. Other tracks, though, sound much more like something you’d hear from Ryan Bingham or any number of other rootsy alt-rockers — folksy, singer-songwriter type stuff. It seems as if Isbell had to walk away from the overt hallmarks of the genre in order to reinvent it.

Well, perhaps not reinvent. That’s a lot of pressure to square on anyone’s shoulders, especially an artist that has been damned and determined to maintain his independence from any genre, much less the artistic cesspool that is mainstream country. But it is important to note that like Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves and even guys like Willie Nelson, Isbell had to outwardly reject the things that were making artists famous in country music. That’s a big risk, more so when you consider the expectations for this record, the follow-up to the smash critical success that was Southeastern.

But what exactly does that mean for country music? A lot. So much that songwriter Todd Snider, known for working with out-of-mainstream acts including Texas country’s own Jack Ingram and Cross Canadian Ragweed, declared that Isbell’s success indicated that the “war is over,” and that the good guys had won. “Jason Isbell has the number one album on the country chart,” wrote Snider in an ALL CAPS screed on Facebook. “And never the less [sic] he is still gathering critical acclaim to rival that of anyone in any genre ever.”

The very sad reality is that “good music,” especially critically acclaimed music, and “country music” have long been divorced, which is exactly why this fresh new crop of artists — led by Isbell and Simpson — has seen such success. Even mainstream fans are bored with what is on the radio, and they’re seeking out artists like Chris Stapleton and Ashley Monroe at the same time as indie music snobs.

Country is finally coming back into the broader music consciousness, and for good reasons this time. It goes without saying that Isbell isn’t just making country music; he’s making really damn good music. Something More Than Free may lack some of the rawness and grit that made Southeastern such a viscerally emotional record, but it is still far and away one of the best country albums of the year, and a thoroughly impressive follow-up to his first album.

It is also clear that people want to listen to this kind of music. They’re seeking it out without hearing it on the radio, and actually paying for it on iTunes and in record stores, which is pretty impressive in this world of digital streaming. Isbell represents a sort of cross-over country success, only this time it’s not the pop charts. It’s serious folk fans, roots music lovers and lyric-deciphering Americana nerds. Oh, and plenty of people from the mainstream, too.

The appeal is broad, and it’s not just Isbell. In rocketing to No. 1 on the Billboard chart this year, he joins an incredibly impressive slate of independent artists seeing similar success. As Grady Smith notes at The Guardian, Aaron Watson, Blackberry Smoke, Kacey Musgraves and Willie Nelson’s collaboration with Merle Haggard have already been at No. 1 on the Country charts this year. At this point, it looks as if authentic, traditional country music will have forcibly shoved its way onto the awards stages next year, assuming that the Academy of Country Music and other industry types don’t just thumb their nose at all this success. And that’s certainly a possibility.

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But the real likelihood is that executives see in Jason Isbell the exact same thing they saw in Luke Bryan, Florida-Georgia Line and Brett Eldridge: dollar signs. If authentic country music is profitable, then it will be recorded. It really is as simple as that.

JASON ISBELL performs with Randy Rogers Band and Whiskey Myers, 5 p.m. Saturday, August 1, at Gexa Energy Pavilion, $26.75-$56.75 

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