Southern traditions don’t always lead to good times, as any Civil War historian or Paula Deen’s accountant can attest. But there was nothing not to love about the Dixiefied Americana that informed Jason Isbell’s set before a sellout crowd Monday at the Birchmere.
Isbell, a 34-year-old singer/songwriter, hails from Alabama, and he picked up three-quarters of his backup band, dubbed the 400 Unit, from the same state. He talked up their shared geographic roots quite a bit between songs during his lengthy and fabulous set, and all his words, spoken and sung, came in a real-deal Southern accent of the sort that’s been disappearing since cable TV’s advent. But Isbell let everybody know early he’s not into all the regional cliches: When somebody sitting in the back of the club yelled “Freebird!,” Isbell, whose musical output reveals plenty of affection for Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Alabama icons who birthed that Southern rock opus before Isbell was born, shook his head and, without looking toward the perpetrator, semi-politely asked the bozo to shut up.
Storytelling is something Southerners are always said to do well, and on that count Isbell sure plays to type, telling tale after tale over big guitars playing memorable melodies. “Flying Over Water” and “Stockholm,” both about the loneliness of being away from home, from his latest CD, “Southeastern,” were borne of a troubadour’s road-warrior weariness.
In 2007, Isbell either seceded from or was given the bum’s rush out of another glorious Alabama-spawned act, the Drive-By Truckers. He went back to his days in that band for “Outfit,” in which a father first makes his wannabe rocker kid hear about his humble roots, including a description of the hot rod where “me and your mama made you,” before giving dad-ly counsel on how the kid can chase his dreams but still stay true to his roots: “Don’t sing in a fake British accent.” Another DBT track, “Godd--- Lonely Love,” showed Isbell had aced the ill-fated romantic ballad before he struck out on his own.
He’s turned the melodrama up several notches since going solo but managed to avoid seeming too maudlin while crooning “Elephant,” which chronicles a cancer-ravaged couple’s relationship from first meeting till death-do-they-part and comes off as a melding of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Brian’s Song.”
Isbell has so many three-chord outlaw country gems in his post-Truckers songbook it seems that by now he can write ’em in less time than it takes to sing ’em. Among the best of the crop offered on this night: “Codeine,” which begins with a paranoid barfly whining to fellow barflies about the cover band they’re being forced to listen to and then claiming his AWOL lady love has been kidnapped and probably drugged by his friends; and “Super 8,” a romp highlighted by a simple man’s simple wish — “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel!” Nobody with a Boston accent could pull off telling those tales without sounding forced or phony. With Isbell’s Dixie drawl, every drawn-out word rang true.
McKenna is a freelance writer.