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Jason Isbell debuts on 'Austin City Limits' with beautifully crafted songs

Jason Isbell makes his "Austin City Limits" debut with wife/violinist Amanda Shires at his side.
Jason Isbell makes his "Austin City Limits" debut with wife/violinist Amanda Shires at his side.

To say that I have been obsessed over the last couple of years with Jason Isbell’s music would definitely be a fairly accurate statement. Ever since I heard his “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine” from his terrific 2011 album “Here We Rest” I haven’t been able to stop playing his songs or get his beautifully realistic lyrics out of my head.

Then came 2013’s “Southeastern,” which was the best album of 2013, in my opinion, and will no doubt go down in the annals of time as one of the greatest Americana albums of all time. The entire album from track one to its final track was mesmerizing, like few things I’d ever heard before. The entirety of it was beautifully penned and orchestrated short stories from the best songwriter in the business born after 1975.

I had the great honor to catch Isbell in concert in October at The Rev Room in Little Rock as he did a short opening act set before the main act Dawes took the stage. It was among the most brilliant 45 minutes I’d ever seen in concert.

I was thrilled when I found out that Isbell was going to get the opportunity to share his talent – as songwriter, vocalist and guitarist – on an episode of the long-running PBS music showcase “Austin City Limits,” as part of an episode with fellow Americana artist Neko Case.

Isbell’s “Austin City Limits” episode debuted on PBS on Saturday, Jan. 11 and it was an incredibly good appetizer for fans that may have not been familiar with Isbell’s body of work. It was also an obvious dream come true for Isbell who announced that he’d been a fan of the music program ever since he was a kid back in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

In just under a half hour Isbell ripped through six of his finest works, five of which are on the fantastic “Southeastern,” including his opener “Flying Over Water,” featuring an awe-inspiring guitar solo, the sweet “Cover Me Up,” the Southern Gothic short story ballad “Live Oak,” the tragically beautiful tale of a loved one dying of cancer “Elephant,” and wrapping things up with the rollicking rocker “Super 8.” All of these songs were ones I’d see Isbell perform at The Rev Room in October and I can say with 100 percent certainty that he’s just as great in a small club concert as an opening act as he is for his ‘ACL’ debut.

My favorite performance of his ‘ACL’ set was “Alabama Pines,” my personal favorite song of his and one that for better or worse reminds me an awful lot of myself. In my opinion, it’s the greatest song written in at least the last five years and the one I most credit with familiarizing me with Isbell, which I will forever remain grateful. With lines like “the a/c hasn’t worked in 20 years/probably never made a single person cold/but, I can’t say the same for me/I’ve done it many times” and “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about/the liberties that we can’t do without seem to disappear like ghosts in the air/When we don’t even care, it truly vanishes away” are so beautiful in their melancholy that they just hit me in my core. There isn’t a single less than perfect line in the whole piece.

I’m truly grateful that “Austin City Limits” gave such an underrated and even unknown singer-songwriter at the caliber of Jason Isbell the opportunity to get his music out there and heard and I know new legions of fans will be made as a result. The fact that PBS has this sort of commitment to not just music, but absolutely great music has always been one of my favorite aspects of the network. Long live PBS.

“Austin City Limits” and PBS can be seen locally on AETN Conway Corp. Channel 2.

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