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On The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell grapples with the racist legacy of a shifting south

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Jason Isbell had the shifting fabric of the south on his mind when he wrote the songs on his new album, The Nashville Sound (Southeastern), and his observations have only become more resonant over the past year—to say nothing of the past few weeks. On “White Man’s World” the narrator indicts himself for passively condoning racist attitudes: “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes / Wishing I’d never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.” Many of the album’s ten songs investigate white privilege from the perspective of a white southerner who’s either left behind or tried to escape his roots but remains entangled just the same. The hard-charging “Cumberland Gap” is a lacerating expression of frustration with stagnant wages and decreasing opportunities, while “Tupelo” turns inward, its narrator quitting a volatile relationship and pinning his hopes on future love: “There ain’t no one from here that will follow me there.” Isbell eschews stereotypes and shows empathy for people immiserated by the socioeconomic conditions that are often blamed for the emboldened racism we see today—but he never gives that racism a pass. He channels the delicate pop spirit of Elliott Smith on “Chaos and Clothes,” but at its best his music still sounds like a hybrid of Bruce Springsteen-style anthems and flinty country rock, rendered with impressive concision.   v

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