Jason Isbell Is Tired Of Country’s Love Affair With White Nostalgia

“I think it’s possible to acknowledge that you have benefited from a system that’s unequal without feeling shame or even guilt from it.”

A smirking man leans back in church pews wearing a leather jacket and smiley-face t-shirt

When you’re standing in front of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, you might feel under siege. It sits a few feet away from Nashville’s rowdy Broadway strip, which means you have to wade through an army of bros and bachelorettes — folks who descend upon the city for a good time, if your idea of a good time is throngs of partyers in matching outfits, open-top buses aggressively blasting music, and more country cover bands per square inch than you can possibly count.

In sharp contrast to the loud nostalgia cosplay that surrounds it, the 2,300-seat auditorium, with its imposing Victorian Gothic architecture and distinctive stained glass windows, projects dignity and history. It’s one of music’s holiest sites, a storied hall that has been dubbed the Mother Church of Country Music. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Willie Nelson has a reverence for it. Word is Harry Styles once planned a whole tour just so he could perform here.

In mid-October, I arrived for the second show of Jason Isbell’s eight-night residency at the auditorium. The occasion is a perfect marriage of artist and venue: Isbell is one of America’s most potent songwriters, and the Ryman is a cathedral of song. For Americana fans, the singer-songwriter’s annual residency here has become a coveted pilgrimage. It’s for good reason that Isbell has come to be associated with the Ryman: In 2015, he played four consecutive nights backed by his band, the 400 Unit. He expanded this to six in 2017. In 2018, he did another six and released a live album called Live From the Ryman. In 2019, Isbell and his band performed at the venue for seven shows. This year, they’re doing eight. Every single one of these runs has sold out.

But if the Ryman has become a kind of home for Isbell, this year’s residency carried a different energy. It was historic. For seven of the eight evenings, he had a different Black woman opening for him. In an industry and genre that is consistently failing white women and is downright hostile to Black women, the choice to feature these openers is a small revolution.

The openers vary in age, fame, and career stages. Between them, they cover a variety of genres under the roots music umbrella, ranging from country to soul, blues to folk, Americana to rock ‘n’ roll. For many of them, it was their first time playing the Ryman at all.

A grinning woman stands in a doorway in a backstage hallway

Perhaps the most recognizable name on the list is Mickey Guyton, a Nashville veteran who earlier this year became the first Black woman to be nominated for a solo country music Grammy. Guyton’s career is the perfect representation of how country’s corporate machinery regularly silences Black women. After weathering a decade of her label’s attempts to slot her into an R&B box, she stood her ground. Finally, in September, Guyton released her debut album, Remember Her Name. (“Thank God that Black don’t crack,” Guyton, who is 38, told me with a giggle. “Because I’d be screwed.”)

Isbell’s decision to feature seven Black women is notable in any year, but in this particular moment, it feels like a necessary course correction. Earlier this year, the country music industry was rocked by scandal after Ring camera footage leaked of rising star Morgan Wallen drunkenly shouting the n-word.

Wallen was dropped by his booking agent, and the all-powerful country radio stopped playing him. But a few months later, he is now sort of on parole, and radio stations are receptive to a new single. He’s rolled out a tour schedule after months of being MIA. The evidence suggests the appetite for forgiving Wallen is healthy.

When I first talked to Isbell on the second night of his Ryman residency, he seemed bothered by the relatively minor consequences that Wallen had faced. “I think it’s hilarious that people assume that making somebody less famous is like cutting their fucking dick off!” Isbell said. “We’re not calling for the man’s head! We’re just going, ‘This guy is an idiot. And he does not deserve to be put on a pedestal. So let’s take him off the pedestal and put him back down on the sidewalk with everybody else.’ That’s all anybody asked for.” (A publicist told BuzzFeed News that Wallen is unavailable to comment.)

This directness is not a common position in country music. Most performers have chosen to stay quiet, keep their head down. It has mostly fallen on women — Black women, in particular — to point out the ways the industry has overlooked racism. But then again, Isbell, 42, is far from the common figure in Nashville. Over the last decade, he has earned a reputation for being a straight shooter, a no-bullshit writer and performer, a mutineer with a microphone.

Over the last decade, he has earned a reputation for being a straight shooter, a no-bullshit writer and performer, a mutineer with a microphone.

Isbell has long been waging war against the way nostalgia has been weaponized. He has grown intolerant of the levels of racism and sexism entrenched in the industry. A white Southern man from Alabama, he is resentful of the ways a fictitious version of the past has been deployed to keep people like him — “white Southern rural men,“ in his words — from seeing how things really are.

But this story is only a little bit about Jason Isbell. If Isbell does his job right, it’s not about him at all. It’s about what happens when white men attempt to unhook themselves from the tentacles of nostalgia and engage with the world as it is, not as they’ve been told it is. For the next week at the Ryman, it’s about cultivating a different vision of roots music in all its iterations. The only thing you have to kill is something that never existed in the first place.

Jason Isbell made three albums with the Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers, then he made three albums after that, then he got noticed about a decade ago. Actually, that’s not quite true: First he got sober, then he got noticed. His fourth solo album, 2013’s Southeastern, is his breakthrough album — certainly commercially, but definitely critically. Isbell set a new standard for vivid songwriting on Southeastern, from the lonely anthem “Traveling Alone” to the weeper “Elephant.” In 2020, when Rolling Stone revised its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Southeastern entered the list at No. 458. The album’s opener, “Cover Me Up,” has morphed into Isbell’s crowning achievement and his most famous song. Isbell wrote it in a very specific context — his own painful journey to sobriety — but it has become a timeless song about redemption.

From there, things took off. Over the next three albums — two of them with the 400 Unit — Isbell won four Grammys. He became a mainstay at the Americana Music Honors & Awards, with more than a dozen nominations in half a decade. He became renowned for his songwriting prowess, and his ability to crystallize a feeling, a tension, a scene. Perhaps that’s why Bradley Cooper tapped him to create one of the songs for his adaptation of A Star Is Born — Isbell wrote “Maybe It’s Time.”

Like the best of Isbell’s work, “Maybe It’s Time” is a mournful, layered song that’s subversive and playful, too: The music sounds nostalgic and wistful, but the lyrics implore you to “let the old ways die.” The gentleness of the song disguises its ask, but at its core, it’s an invitation to do away with your rigid perspectives.

It’s not a surprise, then, that Isbell doesn’t do elephants in the room. (He has been outspoken about vaccine requirements at his concerts, earning some fans’ ire. Some declared they’ll never see an Isbell show again. “Sounds great!” he responded.) At least that’s the sense I got when he first walked into the small dressing room a few steps from the Ryman stage during our interview. This is someone who has little tolerance for vague small talk, preferring to get to the heart of the matter. So when I asked how he decided to have seven different Black women opening this Ryman run, there was a hint of exasperation in his voice. “First of all, I just love the music these women make,” he said. The choice of openers was neither some performative move nor an after-school special. “None of these people should be available to open for me,” he added. “They should all be too big for that.”

A man and women stand side by side onstage with church pews behind them

The breadth of talent opening for Isbell in this run is extraordinary. As is tradition, the first night of every Isbell Ryman residency is reserved for his wife, Amanda Shires, an award-winning singer-songwriter with piercing specificity, who also founded the country supergroup the Highwomen and plays fiddle in Isbell’s band. In addition to Guyton, there’s also Brittney Spencer, the breakout country singer who burst onto the scene about a year ago with her transcendent voice and skillful songcraft; Allison Russell, whose solo debut Outside Child was released in May and is one of the year’s best albums; Amythyst Kiah, who should be a household name by now; Adia Victoria, who deftly subverts a listener’s idea of what modern blues should sound like while breaking their heart; Shemekia Copeland is blues royalty, with seven Blues Music Awards to her name; and Joy Oladokun, whose career has finally been accelerating at a pace that reflects her talent.

“Hopefully they won’t be opening for people like me for too much longer,” Isbell said. But he’s aware of what the slot can do for musicians who need a boost. “Maybe this is a way that some people will be introduced to their music.” It’s not without precedent: “Chris Stapleton opened one of my Ryman shows back in the day,” Isbell pointed out. Stapleton is now one of country music’s most bankable stars, with more than a dozen Grammy nominations and five wins. “Sturgill Simpson has opened one of these too,” he added, referring to the critically acclaimed country singer with a Best Country Album Grammy to his name. “So it is a platform for a lot of folks.” He frowned and paused. “I'm not saying that's why they got huge, just that, before they got huge, this was something they did.”

This kind of pause for self-reflection seems to be second nature to Isbell. Over our conversation, he regularly checked himself to leave less room for ambiguous interpretations. Perhaps this is why he is bothered by imprecision, and he wants to politely put some distance between himself and country music. “I don’t consider myself a country musician,” he told me. “I grew up in the country. I appreciate certain aspects of country music as a songwriter. But I'm in a rock’n’ roll band, and that's how I look at it.” I pointed out that until recently, he was a member of the Country Music Association. “They sent me the membership. I did not request the membership,” Isbell told me. “It was like: Congratulations, you’re in our club. Well, I never asked to be in your fucking club.”

Still, he acknowledged the areas of overlap between himself and country music. As he conceded, “I sing about a lot of the same things.” The caveat is that the context is often deeper and more challenging. Take “Speed Trap Town,” from his 2015 album Something More Than Free. “Sometimes I’ll introduce it as ‘here’s my country song about trucks and football,’” Isbell said with a smirk. He’s being cheeky: The first verse may mention trucks and football, but this is merely the backdrop; the song is actually about a state trooper known for pulling women over and sexually assaulting them, now dying in the ICU while his family struggles over whether they should go see him, and the shame that comes with that. It’s not exactly tailgate party material, but it’s the kind of complex songwriting that has earned Isbell his reputation as a formidable storyteller.

But is it country music? “When people call me a country musician, I don’t mind it necessarily, depending on the point they’re trying to make,” he told me. “But there never should have been ‘country music’ to begin with.”

This may seem tangential, but it’s actually the whole ball game. At the turn of the 20th century, Black and white musicians in the South were recording the same songs with the same instruments. The music was borderless and loose. But about 100 years ago, record executives found that by segregating the musicians and positioning “hillbilly music” for white audiences and “race records” for Black audiences, they could make more money.

Four bandmates perform onstage with the singer, a Black woman wearing a full-length coat, is centered

This is not ancient history. The consequences of that decision come pouring out of your speakers every time you turn on the radio. It didn’t take long before “hillbilly music,” which got repackaged as “country,” was dubbed “the white man’s blues.” The notion of genre is first and foremost a sales pitch, a byproduct of combining capitalism and racism. Outside the music sales infrastructure, the porous borders between genres have long existed, even if it took until this year for the Grammys to finally rename categories like “Urban.”

Isbell's music paints the image of a man who’d sooner shout a thousand uncomfortable truths than take refuge in one lie.

Still, it’s not a given that Isbell would have come to challenge these beliefs about genre and about music. After all, these rules were set up to benefit him and people who look like him. He could jump on the nostalgia train and make a lot of money: He’s a tall, big man with tattoos and Southern rural credentials. It wouldn’t be hard to position him as a vehicle of empty nostalgia.

Yet the idea seems like a nonstarter. I asked Isbell about an old quote of his — in 2016, he told GQ, “I don't believe all music is okay. ... I believe some music is bad for people to listen to. I think it makes their taste worse, I think it makes their lives worse, I think it makes them worse people.” I was intrigued by the concept. He explained that he was referring to “anything that panders, anything that serves to reinforce a story that you already believe.” So that’s about half of country radio. “I think anything that tries to use nostalgia against you, anything that tries to reinforce your fears, that’s bad for you,” he added.

Nostalgia is a beast of fiction: It’s an act of selective editing, of carving out just the bits you want, in order to tell the story you want to tell. It’s the kind of forgetting rampant in country music. Seeking nostalgia is seeking a mirage, for its beauty, yes, but also for its safety. Isbell is not in the business of safety. His music paints the image of a man who’d sooner shout a thousand uncomfortable truths than take refuge in one lie.

Mickey Guyton was standing beside a row of pews on the floor of the auditorium, waiting for a staff member of the Ryman to take the cover off a display case. Behind it, there’s a dress she wore earlier this year on that very stage, and she wanted to be reunited with it, perhaps as a grounding force.

While she waited, she smiled and kept an eye on her band who were onstage for soundcheck, working through “Lay It on Me,” an emotional number with a big soaring chorus. She held her hand to her chest as the band repeated the backing vocal refrain: “I’m right here.” In the empty Ryman, it sounded like a reassuring prayer.

It must be a comfort to Guyton to have people who are right here — people who have your back, in a town that mostly hasn’t. By now, she’s become the most visible case of country music’s neglect of Black women.

Guyton spent much of the last decade in recording industry purgatory: She never wanted to be anything other than a country singer, but she kept running into walls everywhere she went. She was put in silos by gatekeepers who tried to position her as an R&B artist. Collaborators suggested songs about blue-eyed love interests. The message, loud and clear, was that country music doesn’t quite know what to do with a Black woman.

By February 2020, running into walls was losing its charm for Guyton. It had been a decade of being touted as a future star, only for little to happen. “I was just ready to give up by that point,” she told me. “I was just like, This ain’t it. I deserve better than this.” You can roughly see the moment she thought her career was over. It was, out of all places, on the Ryman stage. It came during an industry showcase that same month, where she was debuting a new song, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” It’s a moving account of suffocating under sexism and racism and having to explain it to a young child. (“She thinks love is love / And if you work hard, that's enough / Skin's just skin and it doesn't matter,” she sings.) You can see Guyton’s face collapse for a moment as she received a standing ovation from the crowd. Maybe she treated it as a last outing. “I thought, That’s it. This is over,” she told me.

Then two days after George Floyd’s murder, amid massive protests across America, Guyton posted to Instagram a snippet of a song she’d written a year prior. The video is just a 38-second screen-recording of a file she has on her phone. Her voice full of emotion, she sings, “If you think we live / In the land of the free / You should try to be / Black like me.” It’s a pointed and forceful reversal of the jingoism that pervades country music.

Guyton revealed that she didn’t consult the label or have a particular plan when she posted the snippet. She just hoped it would comfort people who heard it. It did a lot more than that. Within minutes, dozens of commenters were eager for a full-length version. Then Spotify asked for a finished song to place in country playlists.

Immediately, “Black Like Me” was acclaimed by critics and fans alike. It’s hard to say which came first: the profound interest in Guyton, or the scurrying to fix the optics of having too many white faces in country music. But either way, she could no longer be ignored by the country establishment. “Black Like Me” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Country Solo Performance, a first for a Black woman in the category — and she did it without even having an album out.

The Mickey Guyton moment was now in full swing. She was invited to cohost the Academy of Country Music Awards with Keith Urban in April 2021, becoming the first Black woman to host the ceremony. The dress Guyton wore at that awards show, a floor-length blue gown, is now inside that prominent display case at the Ryman. It stands next to a guitar that country legend Emmylou Harris once played on the same stage. In other words, Guyton’s dress is now a part of country music history.

At the end of soundcheck, Guyton shared a tender moment with Isbell onstage. “Thank you for everything, and thank you for what you’re doing for Black women especially,” she told him. “It’s about walking the walk and not being afraid of walking the walk.” She sounded like someone who has embraced the role of ambassador of Black country artists.

A smiling woman descends a staircase

That night, when Guyton took the stage to open for Isbell, it was her first concert at the Ryman since she thought it was all over. In a full-circle moment, she opened her set with “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”, the song she sang just before she thought it was all coming to an end. Before long, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. By the end of her set, she got another three, or perhaps thirty — I couldn’t keep track, because this audience was rooting for Guyton with every note. At one point, she called out for the Black people in the audience. Hearing a few loud whoops and a “We love you, Mickey,” she pointed at the crowd. “I see you!” she exclaimed.

The next morning after the show, when I met up with Guyton at her management’s office in Nashville, she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around the rapturous reception at the Ryman.

“I just never know what to expect,” Guyton said. “I’ve gotten some pretty awful responses online.” The racist abuse directed at Guyton on social media has exacted a heavy toll on her, particularly after the video of Wallen saying the n-word emerged. “The hate runs deep,” she tweeted in response to the news. A day later, she expanded: “This is exactly who country music is. I’ve witnessed it for 10 gd years.” And the heartbreaker: “I question on a daily basis as to why I continue to fight to be in an industry that seems to hate me so much.”

The sentiment is only a little bit about Wallen, Guyton told me. “I don’t think he’s a horrible person. I think he’s a sick person who said something that he really, really regrets. And he deserves grace for that.” But it was her experiences with Wallen’s fans that left her shaken. “I mean, I was called a ‘fucking nigger,’” Guyton said. “Just pages and pages and pages [of abuse] in my DMs.”

So you can understand why Guyton might seem uncertain of whom she was singing in front of. “I’m a little traumatized. So I walk onstage fearful that that’s what I’m about to get.” What she got at the Ryman was thunderous adoration and standing ovations. “This is what I wanted for so long,” Guyton told me. “This was my vision, but it didn’t happen for so long. So I’m still just retraining my brain to be like, Oh, we’re here.”

Guyton is indeed here. The same week we were speaking, she was named CMT’s Breakout Artist of the Year. In her acceptance speech, she told an audience of her peers that she “made it [her] life’s purpose to show that country music really is everyone’s music.” Her voice broke as she dedicated the speech to those who have felt left out of country: “I am here for you. I am my sister’s keeper.”

I asked Guyton if she’s tired of playing the role of class valedictorian, of the burden of explaining being Black in country instead of just celebrating the songs she’s written. “It does get tiring,” she conceded, “but if I don’t talk about it, who will?” She’s aware that people are listening to her, and she feels the responsibility to use that power.

“If we’re lifting each other up, then each of us individually are going to do the same thing for other artists. That’s the only way to keep it going.”

In the era of Charley Pride, country music’s biggest Black superstar, there was a pervading ethos that country music only has room for one Black star. Guyton contended that remnants of this attitude are still lingering. “After Charley and Linda [Martell], there was nothing for 25 years. Then there’s Darius [Rucker], then there’s nothing. Now we have Kane [Brown] and Jimmie [Allen],” Guyton said, “but I'll be damned if I let another 25 years go by and there's not a Black female country superstar.”

So she spent the rest of our interview talking up some Black up-and-comers who needed attention. She seemed anxious to make sure anyone interviewing her will leave with a list of names to go investigate. She was bursting to tell me about Madeline Edwards (“I think she's like the Amy Winehouse of country music”). A month after our conversation, when Guyton performed her ode to Black hair, “Love My Hair,” at the Country Music Association Awards, she invited Edwards and Brittney Spencer on stage with her.

If Guyton has anything to say about it, there will never again be room for just one. “My theory is that the only way for it to work is if there is not one, not two, not three, but several Black artists busting down that door,” Guyton said. “If we’re lifting each other up, then each of us individually are going to do the same thing for other artists. That’s the only way to keep it going.”

A dress is on display behind glass, between guitars and other outfits worn by artists who performed at the venue

In 1991, George H.W. Bush declared October “Country Music Month.” In his proclamation, he stated that “to listen to a country and western song is to hear the story of America set to music.” He told the nation that country music is “honest, good-natured music played with style and spirit. Like a favorite pair of faded blue jeans, it fits the way we live.” Eighteen years before Bush, Nixon made a similar proclamation, saying, “No matter where men and women happen to live, country music may be one of the truest voices speaking to and for them.”

That kind of romanticization of country music as America’s song is not limited to presidents from a distant past. Toby Keith performed at Donald Trump’s inauguration celebrations, as did Lee Greenwood, whose song “God Bless the USA” became regular rally entrance music for the former president. The entwinement of country music and nationalism is not even limited to Republicans; Garth Brooks performed at Joe Biden’s inauguration earlier this year.

Still, while plenty of country songs touch on the theme of quiet pride in the place you’re from, the overly jingoistic part of the genre lends itself to aligning with conservatism. And those close associations with right-wing politics are not accidental. It’s just a smart political strategy. When Nixon visited the Grand Ole Opry and connected country music with conservative values, these were, as Jacobin writes, “calculated attempts at inventing a ‘white working class’ and pitting it against the radical movements that had emerged in the 1960s.” Country became embroiled in the explicit project of stoking the resentments of white people, particularly rural white people.

A week before Isbell’s Ryman residency began, the conservative website the Daily Wire held a live event on that very stage in front of a sold-out audience. Ben Shapiro, the website’s founder, showed up wearing a bolo tie. Just a year prior, Shapiro moved to Nashville and brought the rest of the Daily Wire with him.

Shapiro didn’t build his following as a conservative commentator by being a mild-mannered fellow who likes the free market. He got there through torqued rhetoric, saying things like “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.” He’s been called out for anti-LGBTQ comments. And he once tweeted on the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s birthday that the teenager would be alive “if he hadn’t taken a man’s head and beaten it on the pavement before being shot.”

All of this makes the Ryman stage hit different this time for Jason Isbell. “If I was the venue, I’d probably not book that,” he said with a grimace. He was clearly wrestling with this. He wouldn’t go as far as suggesting banning Shapiro and company from the stage, he said, because “I don’t want the Ryman telling me I can’t say my fuckin’ liberal, progressive shit from the stage.” He added, “So that is where the First Amendment comes into play.” But still, he can’t help but feel differently about his beloved Ryman. “It changes my opinion of the venue a little bit. I’m not quite as proud to play the place after that happened as I was before.”

Isbell and Shapiro don’t know each other, but they’ve had a minor internet spat over gun control once. Isbell tweeted that people who are fighting over the definition of an assault weapon are being deliberately misleading. “You know what an assault weapon is, and you know you don’t need one,” he tweeted. In response, one of his followers gave an earnest rebuttal: “Legit question for rural Americans,” a man named Willie McNabb tweeted. “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” The response was an immediate meme sensation.

The attention that Isbell’s original tweet got didn’t seem to sit well with Shapiro, who shot back, “Actually, no, I don’t ‘know what an assault weapon is.’ And neither do you.” Big mistake. Isbell responded that he has “owned and fired those guns. … You pretend to be confused in order to con people who actually are.”

That was the end of it. Isbell told me, “I didn't hear much back from Ben after that. I think that was a difficult one for him to logic his way out of, because he just didn't look like the kind of man who has owned those kinds of guns.” But he conceded gleefully, “Maybe he is. I could be wrong.”

Too often, living in certain parts of the South, or owning certain guns, is used as shorthand for conservatism. Isbell complicates this story. He stands as an inconvenient challenge to what he calls a “con,” the trick of using nostalgia and white resentment to keep rural white Americans believing that they are victims, that something has been taken away from them. You know the coded rhetoric. It’s the one that says America has to be made great again. It’s the kind of narrative that explicitly tries to use nostalgia against you, in Isbell’s parlance.

It’s also a narrative that has many champions. “They got their [Hillbilly Elegy author and Ohio Senate seat candidate] J.D. Vances, people who can cover a large group of people, for example in Appalachia, and convince them to fall for the grift,” Isbell said. He knows it’s a grift because he’s had the opportunity to see the truth.

“I didn't realize until I got in my 20s and started touring around the country what poor in America really was,” Isbell said. “We got out into some of the Indigenous territories, and I was shocked that this existed in America because that looked like a country that I had read about and not the one that I had lived in.” It didn’t cohere with the story he had been told about his own poverty. “When I was a little kid, we were all the same. So I didn’t think we were poor. And then I got a little older and I thought, Oh, I grew up poor, and then I got out there and I thought, No, I was just fine.”

The reason this message works best coming from him is his credibility. “I grew up in rural Alabama with a lot of people who had a lot of backwards beliefs, people who hunted and fished and got in fights and drank too much and loved football.” It’s not as though he’s been taught about systemic racism from the first grade. “I’m not coming at these opinions because somebody has force-fed them to me from the time when I was a child,” Isbell said. “I figured this shit out on my own, with the help of a lot of good friends that I met once I started touring and traveling.”

“I think it’s possible to change your ways without feeling guilty or ashamed.”

I asked why he finds himself so opposed to the narrative of white victimhood. “Because there’s no way it’s true. I would be happy to consider it because it would serve me well to be able to say ‘I’m a victim,’” he replied. “I would love that. I don’t have too much pride. I’ll use whatever. But it’s just not true, and it’s so untrue that I couldn’t sell it with a straight face.”

Isbell has imbued some of his songs with these themes. Take “White Man’s World” from his 2017 album The Nashville Sound. It’s a song explicitly about coming to terms with the ways he has benefited from being a white man. There’s the line about becoming a father and believing that the world will belong to his daughter, “but her mama knew better.” There’s the line about his complicity in “pretending not to hear another white man’s joke” in front of a Black man. “When people try to attack the statements that I made in that song, they use phrases like ‘shame’ or ‘white guilt,’” Isbell said. “But I think it’s possible to acknowledge that you have benefited from a system that’s unequal without feeling shame or even guilt from it.”

In fact, Isbell wants to go further than just acknowledging. “I think it’s possible to change your ways without feeling guilty or ashamed,” he said. “I think that’s what I was looking for with that song: to try to remind people that their story is not the only one.”

When I walked into Brittney Spencer’s greenroom above the Ryman stage, she was asking if anyone in the room had any lotion or shea butter. The only Black member of her band, drummer Desmond Davis, did. She got the lotion, and then we were off to find somewhere quiet to talk. On the way, she was bouncing off the walls, descending the stairs three steps at a time, and swinging from the railing.

“Today is a good day,” she said, beaming. “I’m opening up for Jason Isbell, one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life.” Spencer and Isbell have an easy rapport. At soundcheck, he suggested a collaboration on the last encore of the night: “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. “You up for it?” he asked. “Hell yeah, that’s my shit,” she responded. Most people would not just be up for the task on a whim.

But then again, Spencer is not most people. She may have had her breakout moment only a year ago, but she’s been honing her craft for some time. “People get shocked when I tell them I’ve been here for so long,” Spencer told me. “But I’ve just been writing songs in my bedroom for eight years.” So she’s been putting in the time to develop a powerful voice she knows how to deploy.

It’s that voice that caught the attention of Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife, in October 2020. Spencer tweeted a video of herself alone with her acoustic guitar, singing “Crowded Table,” a cover of the signature song of Shires’ supergroup, the Highwomen. Shires reposted it with a simple message: “This is beautiful, Highwoman. Some day we will play again—and when we do, we’d be honored if you’d come sing this with us.”

From there, things took off for Spencer. Soon, she was writing songs with Shires and Isbell and others. Her profile grew. By July 2021, she quit her job at Warby Parker, the glasses retailer. Last month, the 33-year-old announced her own headlining tour. Nashville’s MusicRow magazine just named her a 2022 Next Big Thing. But how does it feel when your stardom begins with people like Isbell and Shires championing you? “It feels like you’re surrounded and protected. It feels like you’re not alone,” she said. Spencer understands that her kind of story doesn’t come along often. She explained that she met with Guyton long before her video went viral, and she’d seen how Guyton was willing to fight for the next generation. Spencer recalled, “Mickey said to me, ‘I don’t think success is going to happen for me. I don’t see a future for me, but there could be a future for the younger generation, for other people that are coming up behind me.’”

Three people face each other with their hands on one another's shoulders

Things are happening fast for Spencer. It’s hard to believe that she is still green, that she doesn’t yet have an album out. She’s so green, in fact, that she has never seen her name on a drumhead. Until tonight, when Desmond, her drummer, surprised her with one for the big Ryman show. Spencer squealed with excitement at the sight. When Shires passed by, Spencer yelled after her: “You know I’m only here because of you, right?” Shires was having none of it. “No, baby, you’re here because of you.”

Amythyst Kiah can’t wrap her mind around the journey she’s taken either. “When I was a teenager, I was one of two Black people I knew who played guitar,” she said. “And I was the only girl I knew who played guitar.” And now? “Now I’m the face that I needed to see when I was younger,” she said. “Now people younger than me are looking to me and seeing that, yes, this is possible. You can express yourself in this way.”

The 35-year-old covers a range of roots genres, marrying country blues with elements of folk and rock. She writes powerful, defiant songs about growing up Black and gay in the South.

Speaking by phone a couple of days after she opened for Isbell, Kiah extolled the virtues of therapy. “It was a huge day to play the Ryman and have a chance to talk with Jason after the show — about songwriting but also therapy — and come away from this amazing experience to realize I need to not be so hard on myself,” she said.

What role has therapy played in her life? Kiah explained that even though she writes songs about what she needs to process, “that wasn’t enough, because I didn’t have the vocabulary or the perspective to actively engage with what was going on with me.”

Having a therapist has been helpful as she navigates the questions of performing in a genre whose stars don't often look like her. “Within the space, we’ve had to mentally deal with a lot,” she said. “We’ve had to deal with rejection, we’ve had to deal with ‘Am I good enough?’, but we’ve also had to deal with ‘Do I feel safe doing this?’”

In addition to her solo work, Kiah is a part of Our Native Daughters, an Americana supergroup that also features Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. The four Black women, all wielding banjos, released Songs of Our Native Daughters in 2019, an album that explores the forces that have shaped the lives of Black women, from misogyny to slavery.

The album’s opener, “Black Myself,” is written by Kiah. It’s a song that starts defiant in the face of racism before turning into an ode to being rooted in your community. In 2020, she earned a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Song for the song. She rerecorded it for her most recent album.

Kiah has been blown away by the messages she gets. “I get messages from Black women saying, ‘Hey, I started learning the banjo and getting into folk music because I saw Our Native Daughters,’” she said. “White people message me and say, ‘your work really helped change my perspective on how I saw the history of this country.’”

The bars of Broadway seem to be bursting with a desire to return Wallen to his perch. Within a two-block radius, I heard five different Wallen covers. Three of them were of “Whiskey Glasses,” his breakout hit. Each time, hundreds of people inside the bar were screaming every line of the lyrics. Clearly, it’s a crowd-pleaser.

In general, the numbers Wallen puts up suggest he is one of the most popular country stars of his generation. Even in a year where he was briefly taken off the radio, he still managed to get five songs in the top 50 of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Wallen alone constitutes 10% of the top 50.

Even the moratorium on being played on the radio had a positive effect on Wallen’s album sales. After all promotion for his record ceased in the wake of the racial slur scandal, Dangerous: The Double Album went on an impressive streak at the top of the charts. Wallen will end the year as the top-selling artist in America across all genres, one spot ahead of Olivia Rodrigo, and four spots above Drake.

Remember “Cover Me Up,” Isbell’s signature song? According to Spotify, it’s far and away his most popular song, streamed more than 48 million times. But there is another version of it with more spins on the streamer: Morgan Wallen’s cover, which is on Dangerous, has racked up 190 million listens. It’s fucking preposterous.

I asked Isbell to take me back to the call when Wallen asked to cover “Cover Me Up.” Isbell clarified dryly, “Oh, that’s not the call. The call is ‘Wallen has covered ‘Cover Me Up.’” Other artists do not need your permission to cover your song, they simply need to pay you. Still, even if Isbell’s permission wasn’t required, Wallen initially had his blessing anyway. Isbell thought the cover might introduce “Cover Me Up” to a new audience.

Did the success of Wallen’s version change his relationship to the song? “No, that’s my song,” Isbell said assuredly. “It is my baby that I have had to carry through a rainstorm.” Besides, the context is so very specific to Isbell and his sobriety. “I wrote it for myself and for my wife years ago,” he said. “I’m disappointed in the type of person that he became — or maybe was, and didn’t reveal until it was too late — but that has nothing to do with that song.”

After news of Wallen’s racial slur, Isbell announced that he’d be donating his royalties from the song to the Nashville chapter of the NAACP. “The mistakes that he made,” Isbell told me, “were enough to warrant giving somebody else that spot.” By “that spot,” he means the full lobbying support of the country industry: radio, TV, magazine covers, a push for a musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live, you name it. It’s the machinery that made Wallen the top-selling artist of the year. “The problem was they had already invested so much money in Morgan that when he made those mistakes, they didn’t want to lose that investment.”

But is it so simple to give the support to somebody else? “I know a lot of people think it’s not that easy,” Isbell said, “but it is. It’s manufactured. Promotional budgets determine who is going to be the darling of the industry at any given time.” The frustration is in seeing all the people who could be given that opportunity. “That spot was available for someone like Mickey. Why not? That would be a great story,” Isbell said.

“People who devote their whole life to a battle they know they’re not going to win. Those are the real fucking heroes.”

Is this tantamount to “canceling” Wallen? “I hear a lot of people say, ‘How dare you do this to this young man in the prime of his life?’” Isbell said impatiently. “This man is going to be fine. There’s a lot of people who are fucking doing awesome who are not singing country songs on Saturday Night Live.”

But fine. Let us grant that there might be a path for Wallen to redeem himself. What could that look like? Perhaps he might “go through some steps and try to craft some kind of way where he can show us that he has learned from this experience,” Isbell said. “But not even that happened.”

Instead, what has happened is…nothing. Wallen pledged $500,000 to Black-led organizations. As of this fall, he has yet to donate much of his pledge. In many ways, it seems the appearance of redemption is more important than actually doing the work of proving you’ve changed. “Listen to how they talk about George Jones,” Isbell said of the country legend. “There’s a lot of shit that George did that was not cool, shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from.” Jones has a well-documented history of violence, misogyny, and, racism. “But everything ended well, according to the country music's narrative.”

Isbell paused. “I don’t mean to pick on George Jones. I think he’s the greatest country singer that ever lived,” he clarified. “But he did a lot of really, really terrible, terrible shit.” This is the magic trick: to be able to hold both truths in hand at the same time, instead of rushing to the redemption.

“Excuses have been made over and over to try to craft that same white male narrative. It’s just part of the story. It’s like, ‘Yes, sometimes, as white men who’ve been put upon, we slip and we make mistakes, but we can rise again! And that’s country music, folks,’” Isbell said. “For people who already believe it’s true in their life, it gets reinforced when they hear it on the radio. And they don’t have to question it, they can just enjoy the nostalgia of it.”

I asked Isbell: What do those audiences get out of this nostalgia? What makes it so appealing? “They want to hear how heroes are just like us. But I think we can ask for a little more,” he said. “Let’s look for real heroes. People who devote their whole life to a battle they know they’re not going to win. Those are the real fucking heroes.”

A packed crowd standing in pews watches a band perform onstage

In between songs on the third night of Isbell’s residency, I struck up a conversation with an audience member I’d seen the day before. Sarah Shea told me she and her husband, Matthew, come every year from Alabama for Isbell’s Ryman residency. This year, they’re attending three nights. Last time, they went to four. She’s excited that their children will soon be old enough to join for a few shows too, maybe starting next year.

I asked Sarah what she thought of the openers so far. She had rave reviews of both Guyton and Spencer. “They blew me away. I’m just so mad I’ve never heard their music before,” she told me. “I can’t believe I haven’t even heard their names.”

I started to ask her another question when Isbell launched into “Stockholm,” a favorite of hers, and she disappeared back into the music she came here for. But after the show, Sarah was excited to share the new artists she just discovered. About Spencer, she tweeted, “buy all her merch, attend all her shows, and add her to every playlist.” And like that, a new fan was born. ●

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