Since 1996, the U.S. State of Georgia has voted Republican in every Presidential election. The 2020 election took place on November 3rd and two days later, but before the result was confirmed, Jason Isbell announced that, if the State turned blue (i.e. voted Democrat – in favour of Joe Biden), he would record a Georgia-related charity album. The initial count showed that Biden received about 13,000 more votes than Trump. On November 11th, a full Statewide audit of nearly 5,000,000 votes was announced and this resulted in 1,274 extra votes being alloted to Trump. The final results were confirmed on November 20th with Biden getting 2,475,141 votes and Trump getting 2,462,857 votes. On November 30th, Gabriel Sterling, a top election official in the State, gave a press conference in which he described death threats made against an election technician. He appealed to President Trump: “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right“. Days of Trump and Johnson. One gone, one to go.
The result of all this is “Georgia Blue”, an album of 12 songs, curated by Jason Isbell. There are several different lead vocalists and many guest musicians but the musical continuity of the album is provided by The 400 Unit. This is the name given to Jason Isbell’s backing band which consists of his wife, Amanda Shires, on fiddle, Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Chad Gamble on drums and Derry Deborja on keyboards.
Jason Isbell was actually born in Alabama but Drive By Truckers, the group that he joined, aged 22, operated out of Athens, Georgia. He describes the songs on this album as all being “Georgia-related songs”.
“Nightswimming” is from R.E.M.’s eighth album, “Automatic For The People“. Jason Isbell’s voice is, of course, sensational but I’ve not yet got my head around the discordant banjo playing of Bela Fleck and mandolin playing of Chris Thile on this version. R.E.M. were formed when Peter Buck met Michael Stipe in a record shop in Athens, Georgia.
“Honeysuckle Blue” is sung by the guitarist from The 400 Unit, Sadler Vaden. He has released two solo albums as well as co-writing songs with Aaron Lee Tasjan and producing Morgan Wade’s album, “Reckless”. This is a hard rocking song in which Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden trade scintillating guitar solos. Sadler Vaden’s lead vocals are excellent and remind me of Roger McGuinn. The song was written by Kevin Kinney of a Southern rock band called Drivin N Cryin, a band from Atlanta, Georgia, which I had never heard of, but have released 12 albums since 1986.
Track 3 is the well known James Brown song, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World“. James Brown started his career as a gospel singer in Toccoa, Georgia. The lead vocals on this version are sung by Brittney Spencer. The Highwomen is a country music group consisting of Jason Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires along with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. At the 2020 UK Americana Music Awards, their album won International Album of the Year. When Brittney Spencer posted a cover of their song, “Crowded Table” on Twitter, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris were so impressed that they invited her to sing with The Highwomen at The Bottlerock Festival and Jason Isbell also invited her to contribute vocals to this song. She was recently named one of “5 Black Artists Rewriting Country Music” by The Recording Academy. Brittney Spencer and Amanda Shires changed some of the lyrics to the song and Jason Isbell said he was “floored” by the results.
In 1997, Cat Power (Chan Marshall, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia) spent a night by herself in a farmhouse in South Carolina that she shared with her boyfriend, Bill Callaghan. Whilst she was asleep she experienced a nightmare which was “surrounding my house like a tornado. So I just ran and got my guitar because I was trying to distract myself. I had to turn on the lights and sing to God. I got a tape recorder and recorded the next sixty minutes. And I played these long changes, into six different songs.” These songs were included on her next album, “Moonpix” and one of these, “Cross Bones Style” is Track Four on the album. Amanda Shires takes lead vocals and plays highly adroit fiddle throughout. It’s a moody, threatening highlight of the album.
Precious Bryant has been described as Georgia’s greatest blueswoman. A folklorist called George Mitchell travelled around Georgia and encountered her in an isolated community called Waverly Hall. She was from a traditional farming family of sharecroppers and made no studio albums until she was 60 years old. “The Truth” is the title track of her second album, released in 2004. Adia Victoria, who sings lead vocals on this version, is from South Carolina and has released three albums. Her singing on this song is ghostly and in perfect contrast to the dirty electric guitar playing of Jason Isbell.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” was co-written by Otis Redding and Jerry Butler (of Curtis Mayfield’s band, The Impressions). Otis Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia. It’s a soul classic and Jason Isbell doesn’t hold back in expressing the fear of lines like “You were tired and your love is growing cold. My love is growing stronger as our affair affair grows old.” It sounds like an old fashioned show stopper as he leaves the stage and the audience goes wild, demanding an encore. Almost as good as the original.
Steve Gorman was the drummer with the Georgian rock band, The Black Crowes and he plays behind Jason Isbell’s impassioned vocals on “Sometimes Salvation” which was written by two other members of the band, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson. Some rock music suffers from weak and quiet vocals but the combination of Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit works perfectly.
Another band from Atlanta, Georgia is Indigo Girls, a band consisting of high school friends Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. “Kid Fears” is from their second, eponymous album, released in 1989. Amy Ray has said that she wrote the song about the sexual, emotional or physical abuse that some her friends suffered as young children. The backing vocals on the original song are by Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Vocals on this version are shared between Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker.
This album is a great introduction to a huge number of artists I’ve never heard of. Now It’s Overhead, from Athens, Georgia, released three albums between 2001 and 2006. “Reverse” is from their second album, “Fall Back Open” and is a song describing paranoid mental disintegration. Jason Isbell takes lead vocals on this powerful, full band, version.
“Midnight Train To Georgia” was a Number One hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1973. Brittney Spencer takes lead vocals again, along with John Paul White of The Civil Wars.
“In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is an instrumental recorded by The Allman Brothers Band, who were based in Macon, Georgia. The version here lasts for over 12 minutes and includes extensive electric guitar solos.
Vic Chesnutt, from Athens, Georgia, died in 2009, having released 14 albums. Jason Isbell says that he is resigned to the fact that there will never be enough people who know how great he was. “I’m Through” is from his ninth album, “Silver Lake” and describes a forlorn attempt to shake off suffocating love. There’s reference in the song to Emily Post, who wrote extensively about etiquette. One of the verses is “I struggle with these etiquettes, like you wouldn’t believe. I’m puzzled by the policies, ’cause after everything else you draw out of me, you still expect cute curtsies.” This is a slow, brooding version with sad fiddle from Amanda Shires and yet another sensational vocal by Jason Isbell.
The final song on the album is another R.E.M. cover. “Driver 8” is from their third album “Fables Of The Reconstruction” (or is it called “Reconstruction Of The Fables”?).
This is a hugely enjoyable album and Jason Isbell’s voice continues to enthrall me. Some songs are better than others, in my opinion, but, as a result of listening to these songs, I’m motivated to explore Vic Chesnutt, Now It’s Overhead, Drivin N Cryin and Brittney Spencer.