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First Play: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

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Holly Gordon

“Under our roof is a baby girl,
I thought this world could be hers one day,
But her momma knew better.”

With the first verse of Alabama-born Jason Isbell’s latest single, “White Man’s World,” the Grammy-winning country singer puts his critically acclaimed art where his tweets are, acknowledging and challenging his privilege, his problems with the Trump presidency and the fact that he’s “a white man living on a white man’s street/ I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet.”

It’s a call to action and the fourth single from Isbell’s upcoming album with his band, the 400 Unit. Titled, albeit boldly, The Nashville Sound, it’s his sixth full-length release in the last decade, and the third consecutive one on his own record label, Southeastern Records. It’s also Isbell’s third time working with producer Dave Cobb, known for his work with Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Corb Lund.

Recorded at RCA Studios — famous for its part in the Nashville sound of the '50s and '60s — Isbell’s own sound with the 400 Unit is fuller than it was on his last two releases, with tracks like “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope the High Road” checking off the barn-burner category on the album.

“Lyrics and melody are still the driving force behind what we’re doing, but this time around, there’s more of a rock ‘n’ roll influence,” Isbell told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “You might shed some tears, but for once, there’s a chance you might also dance a little.”

But it feels like Isbell is more specifically targeting what — or who — is behind that Nashville sound. “Momma wants to change that Nashville sound/ but they’re never gonna let her,” he sings on the aforementioned “White Man’s World.”

“Momma” in this case is presumably Amanda Shires, a solo country artist who is married to Isbell and plays in the 400 Unit (the two had a baby girl in 2015). Throughout his album, Isbell is saying he’s done with the status quo — which includes him: “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues/ I’ve sang enough about myself,” he admits on “Hope the High Road.”

While a lot of The Nashville Sound is Isbell and the 400 Unit burning through all things topical, there are a few trademark deep breaths in tempo — though never resting easy lyrically. “If We Were Vampires” is the one you'll find yourself returning to, a guitar-picked love song by both Isbell and Shires, not about falling in loving but a clear-headed nod to a love you can stay in and work for until the very end.

“Maybe time running out is a gift,” Isbell sings. “I’ll work hard 'til the end of my shift/ and give you every second I can find/ and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”

There won’t be a dry eye in the house when that song’s played live.

The Nashville Sound will be released June 16 via Southeastern Records. Pre-order it here.