Jason Isbell on The Nashville Sound and Country Music’s Responsibility

“I’m Hoping I’m Speaking to More Than One Generation”

Outside the RCA B recording studio on Music Row, there is a monument marker erected by Nashville’s historical commission that tells visitors of producer and guitarist Chet Atkins and the music that was made there.

The studio was established in Nov., 1957 with offices run by Atkins. And in its heyday through the ’60s, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves and many others recorded there, establishing the site as ground zero for the Nashville Sound.

At the time, the Nashville Sound was a new form of popular music that had a middle of the road sound that would preserve the country aesthetic but that would also appeal to a broader audience that knew no experience of rural life.

It was a moment reading that same monument marker when Jason Isbell felt the initial spark of inspiration for the title of his latest album with the 400 Unit.

“I like things that open themselves up to multiple layers of meaning,” Isbell said over the phone during our CMT.com interview while on a break from cutting his yard. “And seeing, ’Recorded at the home of the Nashville Sound,’ on the backs of all the albums that came out in those days, I thought, ’That means something different to me now.’ And if it means something different to me, then we might as well say it means something different. So, I’m going to sort of take ownership of that. And try maybe to explain at least to my listeners that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.”

Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Nashville Sound was recorded over two weeks at the larger RCA A studio, which was opened next door in 1964 following Studio B’s success. The 10-song collection’s producer, Dave Cobb, is the current producer in residence at RCA A where he recorded the Southern Family compilation, Chris Stapleton’s Grammy-winning Traveller and Stapleton’s From A Room double album.

“I think that definitely what Dave Cobb is doing at that studio, and before that at Sound Emporium and his house, is definitely reinventing what people see of country music. With Chris’ success, you can’t deny that country music sounds different now than it did a year ago or two years ago or three years ago.

“I’m not really trying to draw a line,” Isbell added. “I’m just seeing the lines that are already there, and trying to say, ’Hey, everybody. Do you see this, too?'”

Isbell also mentioned other musicians who are contributing to a current reinvention of the Nashville Sound, listing the Black Keys, Paramore and Jack White as just a few of the acts who are active in today’s local music community.

“There’s all kinds of music that’s coming out of Nashville now that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s become traditionally popular country music,” Isbell said. “I like seeing the blend of all these things. I like seeing all the genres merge and move and I like to see people moving in a direction of musical and creative honesty.”

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