Isbell shows why he’s the man; Earle tears up Belly Up |

Isbell shows why he’s the man; Earle tears up Belly Up

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Jason Isbell

Modern country music is doing just fine, thank you, so long as you know where to look.

And looking for Jason Isbell and Steve Earle, two open-minded Southern heavyweight poets in the country and Americana music arena, came easily the past two weeks in Colorado.

Isbell, who dropped by Lyons on Aug. 15, has been enjoying a nice roll of late. His lovely wife and musical cohort Amanda Shires is due to have their first child in September.

“In six weeks, my wife’s gonna have a baby,” Isbell told the crowd. “It’s very exciting. And then that baby’s gonna have to put up with me for a month.”

He has reportedly staved off booze and cocaine going on 31/2 years, and his latest album, “Something More Than Free,” debuted in July at No. 1 on Billboard’s rock, country and folk charts.

Yes, that Billboard. And yes, those charts.

Isbell’s meteoric rise was a jolt to the Nashville music scene, where bro-country — that would be the likes of Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line and their lyrical gamesmanship devoted to freedom fighting and getting laid and loaded — has ruled the modern-country music airwaves.

Isbell is the anti-bro-country songwriter and guitarist, thanks to his penetrating Southern melodies and lyrics so honest they cut to the bone. Uninitiated listeners can feel a tinge of awkwardness upon hearing his hauntingly relatable lyrics for the first time — from Isbell’s storytelling about being born to a teenage mom, personal relationships, kicking bad habits and wrestling with demons, the guilt of using women and finding the right one.

“So girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room / Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom

It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood / So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good.”

Those lyrics, from his 2013 gripping ballad “Cover Me Up,” were on display at his Aug. 15 show at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, showing why this former Drive By Truckers guitarist is a much-needed gift to country music.

Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, also treated the capacity crowd of 4,000 to a couple of his staples he wrote with the Truckers — “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” — but the highlight came with the mind-blowingly beautiful “Children of Children,” a track of “Something More Than Free” that’s already become a classic among Isbell fans.

As an aside, a shameless, name-dropping shoutout goes to former Aspen residents Chad King and Mark McKown, founders of the Jason Isbell Fan Collective page on Facebook. I joined the page late last year with casual knowledge of Isbell’s music. Their page helped skyrocket my appreciation for the man. Score one for something meaningful on social media.

Meanwhile, Earle and his band, the Dukes, brought his protest singing to Belly Up Aspen on Sunday, engaging an appreciative crowd while delivering his fiery country-rock goods.

The show just flat-out rocked, from such timeless classics as “Copperhead Road” to a smoking cover of “Hey Joe.” Earle’s not one to hide from making a statement — his views on war and the death penalty have been well chronicled. And he came out and declared his presidential endorsement at Sunday’s show: Bernie Sanders has his vote.

Isbell, who grew up in Alabama, is 36; Earle, raised in Texas, is 60. Both are sober and let their guards down with plainspoken honesty, a driving force for their success. So much of today’s country music is saturated by vapid tunes with one intention: to climb the charts.

But make no mistake: Isbell and Earle’s music is highly accessible, and neither artist has been kept down by the machine. Rather, they’re thriving. They’ve lived to tell some downright entertaining and witty, sad and dark, romantic and nostalgic tales paired with stellar music. Here’s hoping they keep at it for a good while — not only for the sake of modern country music, but American music as a whole.