Jason Isbell lingers on isolation in sold-out Ohio University show

The Nashville singer and songwriter frequently returned to solitary characters during a 90-minute solo concert at Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium.
Jason Isbell
Jason IsbellAlysse Gafkjen

On Weathervanes, from 2023, Jason Isbell explored the various ways small cracks could in time become yawning gulfs, with careless choices and almost imperceptible neglects gradually compounding to lead his characters astray from the people and places they once held dear. 

Performing solo at a sold-out Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium at Ohio University on Wednesday, these ideas pressed even closer to the surface, Isbell taking the stage for a 90-minute set absent his trusted backing band, the 400 Unit. (The concert coincided with the Nashville singer and songwriter’s appearance as the closing keynote speaker at the 2024 Music Industry Summit.)

Sometimes, this isolation arrived as a product of chance. On “King of Oklahoma,” Isbell’s narrator tumbled off a roof while taking a leak – a darkly comic scene that could have emerged from the minds of the Coen brothers – and then experienced an even greater downfall in the wake of his decision, with a back injury leading to a painkiller addiction. As the song unfolded, the man became estranged from his lifelong romantic partner, reduced to plotting a copper heist as a means to fuel his chemical dependency. 

In other songs, the characters' ostracizations arrived not through bad fortune but via conscious decisions. Such was the case with the father on “Cast Iron Skillet” who coldly axed his daughter from his life after she landed a boyfriend “with smiling eyes and dark skin,” unwilling to abandon his racist views to witness the happiness shared by the two.

Between songs, Isbell recalled how as a much younger man he heard John Prine sing “Angel of Montgomery,” and in particular the line “I am an old woman,” and how that moment awoke in him the idea that he could embody a range of characters in his own tunes. He also acknowledged that while his narrators might be prone to dispensing advice, their words weren't always to be trusted.

“My songs are full of bad advice because I’m from Alabama,” he joked. And even in those moments when his characters dispensed seemingly valuable wisdom, it often arrived couched in deeply faulty logic. “Don’t drink and drive,” Isbell offered on “Cast Iron Skillet,” and then added, “you’ll spill it.”

Throughout the evening, the musician returned time and again to solitary characters, some of whom wished for a different fate. “I know every town worth passing through,” Isbell sang on “Traveling Alone.” “But what good does knowing do/With no one to show it to?” Then there was the woman at the heart of “If You Insist” who lingered at a bar until last call, hoping to make a connection that could rescue her from a lifetime of loneliness. Still others sounded content to fade into oblivion, such as the narrator on a gorgeous “Alabama Pines” who gradually melted into the landscape like late spring snow.

This isolation surfaced in all manner of ways. Some characters were cut off by their deep prejudices and poor decision making, while others, like the indelicate, cancer-stricken woman at the center of the heartrending “Elephant,” were isolated by circumstance. “Surrounded by family I saw that she was dying alone,” Isbell sang.

The musician balanced this more reclusive pull with a handful of gorgeously realized love songs, including “Stockholm,” which captured the early blushes of romance, and “If We Were Vampires,” which introduced the weight of mortality, positioning death as something that grants our relationships a needed urgency. If the clock is ticking, Isbell suggested, each second with a partner becomes all the more precious. 

Isbell also reclaimed a similarly romantic “Cover Me Up” from Morgan Wallen, the country star who covered the song on his LP Dangerous: The Double Album, from 2021, and who has been ensconced in a series of self-inflicted controversies since, first for being filmed using racist language and most recently for his arrest after (allegedly!) hurling a chair from the roof of a Nashville bar. Or, as Isbell explained it without mentioning Wallen by name, this guy “pulled some shit and then some more shit.”

But “goddammit,” he added, “this one’s mine.” Isbell then followed with what evolved into a full-throated, definitive take on the song, which finds a once wild man uncovering needed contentment in newly blossomed love.

Opener Peter One, an Ivory Coast-born, Nashville-based singer and songwriter, kicked off the evening with a short set that traversed myriad fault lines but strived for contentment. Singing in English and French, the musician delivered songs rooted in civil war, domestic violence and the harsh reality that not everyone who wants to have a family will physically be able to bear a child. In spite of these fractious grounds, the songs remained universally serene, with One singing in a warm, unharried voice as smooth as rainwater on a windshield. 

In introducing a song near the end of his set, the musician talked about how when a person is struck by tragedy, God will in time provide some other benefit. Similarly, he said, good fortune is usually be met by unexpected tribulation. This cosmic sense of balance helped to shape One’s meditative performance, the musician meeting tragedy with hope, tumult with serenity.

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