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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit perform in the Forum at MPR

Jason Isbell, along with Sadler Vaden and Amada Shires (not pictured) of the 400 Unit, performs in the Forum at MPR.
Jason Isbell, along with Sadler Vaden and Amada Shires (not pictured) of the 400 Unit, performs in the Forum at MPR.Nate Ryan | MPR
  Play Now [33:29]

by Jill Riley and Brian Oake

July 16, 2018

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - White Man's World (Live in the Forum at MPR)
by MPR
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - 24 Frames (Live in the Forum at MPR)
by MPR
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - If We Were Vampires (Live in the Forum at MPR)
by MPR
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Last of My Kind (Live in the Forum at MPR)
by MPR

Jason Isbell, along with members of the 400 Unit — specifically, Amanda Shires on fiddle and backing vocals, and Sadler Vaden on guitar — recently visited the Forum at MPR for a live session hosted by Brian Oake and Jill Riley, and performed in front of a live audience. "If you can't see us out there in radioland," Isbell quips, "there's a raccoon climbing my microphone stand."

The Nashville Sound, the 2017 release from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, was one of last year's most acclaimed records; one of the album tracks, "If We Were Vampires," was voted the No. 1 song of the year by The Current's listeners in the Top 89 of 2017 year-end poll. Although he certainly isn't "going to complain about people liking the work that I do," Isbell says he most cares about the craft of music-making. "In all honesty, the most important thing to me is I can put out an album and go back and listen to it multiple times — because I'm forced to after I put one out; I have to go back and listen to it more than anybody else does, probably — and not be embarrassed [and] feel like I got the point across and said what I wanted to say and not have a lot of things that I'd like to change after the fact. And I think we really did that with this record," Isbell says. "On a broader scale, I think it is good to challenge yourself to be uncomfortable when you make a record and do something that's not easy and something that people might not all respond positively to, and that's really what I was trying to do with these songs."

When it comes to songwriting, Isbell says "it's like performing corrective oral surgery on myself. It's great when it's done, but the process can be difficult." Isbell praises songwriter Amanda Shires (whose own album, To The Sunset, releases August 3), who is also his bandmate and spouse, for her feedback and editing during his songwriting process. Although Isbell acknowledges that songs "fall out of you" every once in a while, he says songwriting really boils down to hard work. "Most of the time, it's a process of writing a draft and getting something that feels like a song and then going back and finding the places where it's not as strong as it could be," he says. "I think that's just how all writers write, really; it just so happens that we're working with melody, too."

In October, Isbell will release an album of live tracks of songs from his last three albums: 2013's Southeastern, 2015's Something More Than Free, and last year's The Nashville Sound. The songs on the forthcoming album were recorded during shows at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. "It's a great-sounding room and it really lends itself to a live recording in a nice way," Isbell says of the Ryman. "I remember hearing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings there on the 'O Brother' soundtrack when they had a song that was recorded at the Ryman, and there was a whole lot of audience. You could hear the people in the room really clearly. That just made me happy. It makes you feel like you're a part of something rather than being shown something."

Although he isn't ready to talk about dates, Isbell promises another new album, but he characteristically defers to his craft. "As soon as I have a bunch of songs and I don't feel like any of them suck, then we'll get something new," Isbell says.

Use the audio player above to listen to the complete in-studio session.

Songs Performed

"White Man's World"
"24 Frames"
"If We Were Vampires"
"Last of My Kind"
Songs 1, 3 and 4 are from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's 2017 album, The Nashville Sound; song 2 is from Isbell's 2015 album, Something More Than Free, both available on Southeastern Records.

Hosted by Brian Oake and Jill Riley
Produced by Anna Reed
Engineered by Erik Stromstad, Veronica Rodriguez and Maury Jensen
Visuals by Nate Ryan
Web feature by Luke Taylor

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - official site

Amanda Shires - official site

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville