Strings of multi-colored Christmas lights glowed on each tier of Nashville’s CMA Theater as Jason Isbell wrapped his Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist residency at the concert hall on Tuesday (Dec. 19).
Accompanying Isbell throughout the night were his wife and instrumentalist Amanda Shires, along with surprise guests Jerry Douglas, Mac McAnally, Buddy Miller, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris.
Since its 2003 inception, the museum’s artist-in-residence program honors a musician whose work is considered a major contribution to American popular music. Isbell is the latest to be part of the initiative, joining previous honorees that include Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson and Rosanne Cash. Isbell’s three artist-in-residence concerts sold out.
Isbell’s acoustic finale included selections from his Grammy-winning album Something More Than Free and his Grammy-nominated album The Nashville Sound. Between songs, Isbell and Shires entertained with playful banter and interesting facts about their special guests (Apparently, Miller is the proud owner of five hard drives.).
Before delivering a soaring version of “Cover Me Up,” a song Isbell wrote for Shires, he explained the benefits of living with an artist who also happens to be the love of his life. At the time “Cover Me Up” was written, the two shared a house, but they weren’t married yet (a situation his grandmother lovingly described as “living in sin”). Often they would sequester themselves in different rooms of the house to write songs and present them to each other at the end of the day. He admitted writing a song about Shires, who is a scholar and a voracious reader, was intimidating. Whatever he wrote had to measure up to the great works she had already known.
Among the highlights were Isbell and Shires backing Miller and Harris on a live cover of “Love Hurts,” the popular heartbreak ballad by hitmakers Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Welch and Rawlings joined Isbell and Shires onstage for Rawlings’ “Midnight Train,” Isbell’s “”Something to Love” and “Look at Miss Ohio” from Welch’s 2003 album Soul Journey.
The night’s ensemble cast closed Isbell’s residency with a live cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” from 1992’s Harvest Moon.