Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit perform in October 2019 at the iconic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
As country music continues to evolve and take on new forms, one constant always remains: Its ability to address truths and cut to our emotional core. Rule-shattering artists such as Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert, Billy Strings and the Punch Brothers embrace fiercely independent approaches while addressing tough issues in confessional, bold and sensitive manners.
It was the late Wade Jessen who first told me that country is a cyclical genre. Jessen worked in Billboard magazine's Nashville office and was a walking encyclopedia when it came to music. One thing he said that I took to heart: Country styles come and go and, in time, they come around again.
Near the close of the career-spanning set Jason Isbell delivered at a sold-out Ryman Auditorium on October 18, 2019, the musician, supported by his agile, five-piece backing band the 400 Unit, knuckles into “Super 8,” a tragi-comic rock tune fueled by some of the group’s most lubricated riffs.
At the center of every Miranda Lambert song is a distinctive young woman — often wild, sometimes vulnerable, occasionally crazy. This girl is always true to herself, no matter how sloppy her tale or bumpy the ride. Much like Lambert herself, she wears her heart on her sleeve and is very hard not to love back.
Watching Punch Brothers perform is akin to watching the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers run the fast-break offense, with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile in the role of Magic Johnson at the point guard. It’s not simply that they exude effortlessness in their virtuosity, it’s that they do it in such a way that the magic they make seems inevitable.
If any moment captured the weird disconnect of popular culture in 2020, it was Billy Strings’ performance of “Highway Hypnosis” at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre on September 26. The song was a highlight of the acoustic guitarist's breakthrough album, “Home,” released a year earlier.