SARA TOTH – EDITOR
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit’s latest album, Reunions, was released on streaming services May 15, 2020 — but that wasn’t the album’s debut to the world.
No, Isbell and his band opted to release the album a week early, exclusively to independent record stores, to support those small businesses during the first weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I thought about independent record stores and the fact that they’re suffering like all small businesses right now,” Isbell told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly on “All Things Considered.” “But even more so, when somebody puts an album out early via streaming platforms, it takes away an opportunity for them to sell the record, in a lot of cases. So instead of putting it out early I thought, well, we’ll stick to the same timeline, but maybe it would be helpful to those folks if we put it out just through independent record stores a week early. I think it was.”
Isbell and The 400 Unit were set to tour last summer following the release of Reunions, but like countless other acts, pushed the tour to 2021, with a stop at Chautauqua at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.
Isbell is known for his work as both a solo singer-songwriter and guitarist, and his work with The 400 Unit and Drive-By Truckers. He’s been nominated for 16 Americana Music Honors & Awards (he’s won nine of those nominations) and has won four Grammy Awards. Of his seven studio albums, three have reached the top of the U.S. country, folk and rock charts, and Reunions is the fourth album he’s released with The 400 Unit — a band that includes Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, who’s also part of the country music group The Highwomen.
The Dave Cobb-produced Reunions is a collection of 10 “expertly crafted tunes,” Andrew Barker wrote for Variety.
“Isbell’s brilliance has become so commonplace that one risks taking it for granted,” Barker wrote.
Initially, Isbell told Kelly, when he was starting work on Reunions, he was “just trying to write a bunch of good songs, and I think that’s always how it starts for me.”
“I don’t go in with much of a concept because I feel like that sometimes can distract me from doing the real work at hand, which is just writing the best songs I can and documenting where I am at that point in my life,” he said.
After writing a few songs, he told Kelly, he started noticing patterns.
“I started seeing the fact that I was going back in time and reconnecting, at least on a psychological level, with a lot of the people, a lot of the relationships that I had growing up and when I was younger and before I got sober,” he said in May 2020. “I got sober eight-and-a-half years ago. For a long spell, between the time when I got sober and just the last couple years, it was really difficult for me to revisit those times in a way that was anything less than judgmental. Because I had to look back at myself with disdain and not risk turning back into the person I used to be.”
But, Isbell told Kelly, he realized that after years of sobriety and working with a therapist, he was feeling “not necessarily nostalgia, but more of a connection with the person I was a decade or two decades ago. I felt more comfortable and safer going back into that relationship and not judging myself, but coming to terms with the fact that I had good things to offer as well as bad things in those days.”
Isbell has been vocal in recent weeks about new COVID-19 protocols for his upcoming shows; he announced on Aug. 9 that all attendees at live shows would need to provide proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test prior to entry, and he’s backed out of performances where the venues wouldn’t comply. That decision has drawn strong reactions both in support and in opposition.
Still, he told Joseph Hudak of Rolling Stone that when he and The 400 Unit took the stage in Austin, Texas, hours after he’d announced the protocols, he knew he’d made the right call.
“As soon as we walked onstage, we could tell that the audience was full-on excited,” he said. “They felt more comfortable and they had a better time. It was one of the best shows that I’ve played, because the energy in the room was so good. That, to me, was evidence that we had made the right decision.”
That decision extends to Chautauqua, where the Institution — at Isbell’s request — is strongly encouraging wearing face masks at the concert. Anyone not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the start of the show. Third-party reports of negative results within the previous three days, if a PCR test, and six hours, if a rapid test, will be accepted. At-home test results won’t be accepted. Since this is a requirement of the band, there are no exceptions.
“I don’t feel right onstage while I think people might be getting deathly ill in the crowd. I don’t think it’s fair to the audience or to the crews at the venues or to my crew to put people in a situation where they’re possibly risking their lives or taking the virus home to their kids, or they go to school and give it to other kids,” Isbell told Hudak. “It just didn’t feel right. … I think if we hadn’t put these kinds of restrictions in place and we didn’t hold the line on it, I would feel like I was taking advantage of people while I’m doing my job. I don’t ever want to do that, because that little thing that I love the most about the job that I have is the fact that it spreads something positive. I want to protect that. I don’t want to spread positive tests — I want to spread positive vibes.”