Country music at its worst is all brash, drunken confessions and cliched twang. Country music at its best is Jason Isbell and opener Holly Williams at the Bijou Theatre on Tuesday night.
Isbell, a former Drive-By Trucker with a baby face, button-down shirt and obligatory bootcut jeans, looked the part of a country singer. But rather than imitating the sometimes cringeworthy sound of current country stars, Isbell opted for self-assured southern rock that highlighted all of the delicious vocal roughness he could muster.
The seated audience was brought to its feet at various points throughout the evening – the end of Williams' magnificently subtle set, after Isbell's acoustic version of his hit "Cover Me Up," and during the encore when he and his band The 400 Unit started a rock jam session that led to many a spilled celebratory beer.
And throughout it all, Isbell was composed, seemingly immune to audience cheers and catcalls. He let his voice and his mustard yellow electric guitar do the talking, and with each crescendo of emotion, it became increasingly clear why this was a sold-out show.
There is no denying country music is popular in mainstream music, whether it's pop-country like Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift or folk-y Americana like Mumford and Sons. Isbell doesn't side with either extreme. Rather, he brings a refreshing take on roots music that is vocally nuanced and lyrically complex.
Isbell brings back one of the best parts of country music – the story – in a way that doesn't feel overused.
Isbell questions identity in his songs, especially in "Live Oak," just one of the songs that had audience members in emotional communion during the performance.
He sings about cancer and death and traveling alone and returning home. It is not just his topical choices that make him exceptional but the way he sings, the genuine quality his voice takes on when getting to a particularly significant lyric.
The opener, Williams (granddaughter of Hank Williams Sr.), provided the perfect set up -- two acoustic guitars and a bass were the only instruments on the stage during her opening.
Her voice, simple with a kind of soulful roughness, was never overpowered by the music; this allowed the audience to appreciate her songwriting craft and chill-inducing vocals.
If there was a dark spot during Isbell's set, it is when precisely the opposite of this occurs -- when his voice is overpowered by all of the electric guitar, keyboard and heavy drums. The high volume, rendered unnecessary by Isbell's unique voice, seemed excessive, and it was sometimes difficult to piece together the lyrical story he was putting together.
Despite this, Isbell knows how to put on a show while making it look effortless, relying on his reflective singing and songwriting and the talents of his excellent band.
This is the direction country music is going -- and man, it's good.