When Joe Biden was bidding for POTUS, Jason Isbell declared his support by tweeting a promise. If the state of Georgia, his home state, went blue (Democrat), a possibility hitherto deemed impossible, he would record a cover album of Georgia-related songs for charity, “and damn is that gonna be fun.” As Isbell would later say, he had been looking for an excuse to record such a record for some time, but this now offered the ideal opportunity.
Well, Georgia went blue, against the odds and expectations, and with the release of Georgia Blue, three organizations are the better off for it, with all the album’s proceeds going toward Black Voters Matter, Georgia Stand-Up and Fair Fight.
So, thirteen songs, all associating with the Peach state, either by dint of the subject matter or the original performers’ allegiance thereto. Unsurprisingly, this includes a range of artists one can imagine the teenaged Isbell listening to, drawn mainly from rock and soul. If we conveniently forget Isbell himself comes from Alabama, this allows the Floridian Allman Brothers and South Carolina native James Brown to each get a place, by acceptance of each gaining their important rungs on the ladder in Georgia. Cat Power, Otis Redding and the Black Crowes all hail from the state, as do the Indigo Girls and, of course, R.E.M., who manage a couple, opening and closing the album. Tucked between come songs from lesser known lights, Now It’s Overhead and, unless you are from the south, Drivin’ N Cryin’, plus, almost by automatic default, the best song ever to contain the state name, courtesy the Midnight Train thereto. (And, sure, Gladys Knight did indeed hail from the state, Atlanta born, even if we here know the unlikely background to the song!)
Isbell is currently on the roll of his life, COVID-19 and lockdown failing to put much of a dampener on his upward trajectory. When the one-time Drive-By Trucker left the band in 2007 “by mutual consent,” it was no secret his drink problems were largely contributory. He’s now been sober some nine years, that courtesy the then interventions of his wife and musical partner, Amanda Shires, and that new and improved lifestyle has led to a string of successful recordings, somewhat eclipsing his former band. For Georgia Blue, his band, the 400 Unit, is joined by a host of guests, better to flesh out some of the songs that might warrant a little more that just the elegant Americana swagger of Isbell. The choices of artists is well thought out, broadening the palette of styles available in an inclusive and pleasing way.
Isbell’s voice is a fair facsimile of Michael Stipe’s, the rendition of “Nightswimming” seeming initially little more than an acoustic copy. However, his cover has two advantages that R.E.M.’s original didn’t have– the banjo of Bela Fleck and the mandolin of Chris Thile. These two virtuosi weave in and around the basic melody with aplomb, showing off their jazzier chops, which more than makes up the loss of any of the expected piano. The contrast that follows, a crash into the southern rock anthem “Honeysuckle Blues,” comes unexpectedly, a standard thrash through, the vocals and solo guitar courtesy of Sadler Vaden, the 400 Unit’s usually more nuanced guitar player. Strangely, all the guts seem ripped out of Drivin’ N Cryin’s original; here it’s a somewhat leaden chug.
Thankfully, the sassy vocal of one of CMT Next Women of Country award winners of 2021, Brittney Spencer, restores faith. The arrangement of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s Man’s World” is a superb blend of rock with soul, the brass players a perfect background to cradle both her voice and, this time, a majestically searing pair of guitar solos. Amongst the best versions of this much covered song, it expunges the memory of the preceding track. Sticking still to this whirlwind need to switch styles, song by song, the momentum is well maintained by Amanda Shires’ gutsy take on Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style,” transforming the sadcore sway of the original into a driving swamp rocker, with driving drums and Shires’ electric fiddle to the fore, coming on all Sugarcane Harris.
Precious Bryant may not be a household name, but she was one of those remarkable women, like Sister Rosetta Tharp, as happy playing gospel as blues, quietly influential as a woman in a man’s world. She didn’t make her recording debut until her sixtieth year, and then only making three long players, in a simple and affecting style, before her death at aged 71 in 2013. Adia Victoria is a Trinidadian in Nashville, half that age, and who is making a name for herself as an exponent of so-called gothic blues. It is a coup that Isbell enrolled her here, the version a little more upbeat than the original, and is presented as a country blues shuffle, with just the tiniest hint of calypso sneaking in behind the bottleneck guitar and front porch fiddle.
Isbell himself picks up the mike for a bluesy piano led “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Effortlessly dismissing any talk of vocal limitations, he takes on Otis Redding and comes out, well, respectably. It is really good. Sadly, “Sometimes Salvation,” the Black Crowes number, isn’t, the generic bar band side of the band again showing its face, once again losing the dynamism present first time around. Crowes stickman Steve Gorman sings. I am uncertain why.
Isbell reveals his clear liking for Michael Stipe on this disc, he being a featured vocalist on the Indigo Girls own version of “Kid Fears,” from their debut, making three songs on this album that initially carried his voice. Here, Isbell provides the Stipe, with Julien Baker and Brandi Carlile reprising the parts of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray. The voices gel but the production makes for a slightly clunkier join, but any signposting back to the Indigo Girls glorious debut is welcomed. Reverting back to lead vocal, Isbell now leads the band through a somewhat stripped back cover of Now It’s Overhead’s “Reverse.” By resisting the temptation to apply all the undoubted attributes of the band, it gives the song a timely lift into the present, again the motorik drums of Chad Gamble deserving mention. (It sounds, dare I say it, a little R.E.M.-y.)
With the initial (deliberate?) wrong foot of a picked guitar, “Midnight Train to Georgia” then slots into the clearly identifiable song you’d be disappointed not to get. With piano and brass taking on, um, steam, it is taken at quite a lick, Brittney Spencer wrapping her voice around the lyric with confidence. Whilst the b.v.s are clearly no Pips, it is a faithful rendition, whoo-whoos and all. The realization that Derry DeBorja is a competent set of hands on piano should now be more than apparent. A good version, if not a great one, it casts an applicably respectful look back to the styles of the Muscle Shoals sound.
Peter Levin is the brother of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel alumnus, Tony, and is a respected player in his own right, in, mainly, jazz circles. Which is the distinct flavor of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” his hand lifting it away from the more familiar signature of the Allman Brothers. An odd choice to have a eleven minute instrumental on a covers album, especially straying so far from the sound of both the band covered and the band playing, as well as gifting it to a guest player. It is a triumph, giving both Levin and 400 Unit the opportunity to stretch out and groove. Bassist Jimbo Hart is on fire. The closing guitar salvo from either Isbell himself or the equivalently gifted Sadler Vaden, is similarly supercharged.
Isbell cites a couple of reasons why this album is one he has long wished to make: firstly to allow his wife to cover “Cross Bones Style,” with the second being his chance to cover “I’m Through.” This devastatingly bleak Vic Chesnutt song is a tough one to interpret, but Isbell carries it off, his vocal a more pleading entreaty than Chesnutt ever managed, Shires’ fiddle adding all the lonesome prairies you could ever need. Where Chesnutt sounded hopeless, Isbell manages to eke a little hope back in, especially as the strings rise higher in the mix toward closure. Which takes us back full circle to the Athens, GA band who kicked off this project. “Driver 8” feels almost an afterthought, a brief burst of levity after the unrelentlessness of the song preceding. John Paul White, of the Civil Wars, takes the vocals, but there is already a sense that this job is done. It’s a fine version, but adds little to the exercise.
Is Georgia Blue worth your time? Put it this way: if all politicians kept their promises the way Jason Isbell kept his, there would be a lot more people praising government than there currently are. Here’s hoping it won’t take another election day to see the creation of Georgia Blue, Volume 2.
Georgia Blue track listing:
- Nightswimming/JI & 400U feat. Béla Fleck & Chris Thile (R.E.M. cover)
- Honeysuckle Blue/JI & 400U feat. Sadler Vaden (Drivin’ N Cryin’ cover)
- It’s a Mans, Mans, Mans, World/JI & 400U feat. Brittney Spencer (James Brown cover)
- Cross Bones Style/JI & 400U feat. Amanda Shires (Cat Power cover)
- The Truth/JI & 400U feat. Adia Victoria (Precious Bryant cover)
- I’ve Been Loving You Too Long/JI & 400U (Otis Redding cover)
- Sometimes Salvation/JI & 400U feat. Steve Gorman (Black Crowes cover)
- Kid Fears/JI & 400U feat. Julien Baker & Brandi Carlile (Indigo Girls cover)
- Reverse/JI & 400U (Now It’s Overhead cover)
- Midnight Train to Georgia/JI & 400U feat. Brittney Spencer & John Paul White (Gladys Knight & the Pips cover)
- In Memory of Elizabeth Reed/JI & 400U feat. Peter Levin (Allman Brothers Band cover)
- I’m Through/JI & 400U (Vic Chesnutt cover)
- Driver 8/JI & 400 U feat. John Paul White (R.E.M. cover)