Once upon a time, country music had a revolutionary reputation. From its people’s folk origins in the likes of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, through sixties backwoods hippies and seventies outlaw country, country music was the sound of so many disenfranchised, but by the Reagan/Bush years, it had been coopted into God-fearing, patriotic ‘new country’. Yet the even newer ‘woke country’ began to rise during the reign of George II, a schism that has become a true movement in these terrible days. It’s no longer a surprise that your Nashville favorite supports Black Lives Matter, with country records that are perfect for today, such as Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s Reunions.
Jason Isbell has been an alt-country star since his days in Drive-By Truckers, but Reunions is still a revelation. It manages to be country through-and-through while staying completely authentic, and political without being preachy. Opener “What Have I Done To Help” is a true original, political introspection on oneself. There’s powerful country storytelling such as the tale of a military husband whose wife has gone “Overseas” to the troubled narrator’s tribute to hiding his sins in the “River”.
And while Reunions delivers a big & bold woke country statement in “Be Afraid”, it also has a killer straightforward personal country-rock anthem with “It Gets Easier”. This is not a record that has to be political all the time, and Isbell can touch on the intimate & everyday in the longing for a better life “Dreamsicle”, to the father giving his daughter away closer “Letting You Go”.
In this extremely turbulent era, there are those who want their favorite country stars to “just shut and sing” (and favorite basketball stars to “just shut up and dribble”), and thankfully there’s been a groundswell movement against it by those stars and their true fans. Just as country music can touch the personal, it can also call the political, and we’re all the better for albums like Reunions.