One of the rising stars of the Americana music scene, Jason Isbell, will be in Shetland for what promises to be a very special concert on Tuesday night.
Isbell and his wife, singer and fiddler Amanda Shires, will perform as a duo at Mareel having enjoyed a year of award nominations, critical acclaim and playing before packed venues on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Alabaman singer, an erstwhile member of southern US rockers the Drive-By Truckers, is enjoying the greatest success of his career to date following the release of 2013’s ‘Southeastern’ album.
He will also visit the isles fresh from rubbing shoulders with country great Willie Nelson and bluegrass star Alison Krauss on a US tour this spring.
Isbell won an Americana Music Award for his alternative country anthem ‘Alabama Pines’ in 2012, following that up with a trio of nominations (for best artist, album and song) ahead of this September’s awards.
Though many of his soulful songs contain a strong country lilt, ‘Southeastern’ steers well clear of clichéd mainstream Nashville schmaltz.
“If people are drawn to lyrics it’ll be the kind of music that they like – that’s most important to me, lyrics and melody,” the 35 year old says.
Shires, who will also perform some of her own material on Tuesday, has been in Shetland before (“she tells me it’s a really beautiful place”) and Isbell says they are “very much looking forward” to the visit.
The pair enjoy true on-stage chemistry, almost like an alt-country version of Johnny Cash and June Carter, often engaging in amusing between-song interludes.
“You know, I’m not as good at it as some people,” Isbell says. “Todd Synder, people like that, are better at it, but I try to have a good time – all my songs are really sad so I feel like I have to say something funny in between!”
The Mareel date is one of just three Scottish shows on the back of an appearance at this weekend’s Cambridge Folk Festival.
Perhaps unsurprisingly he speaks very highly of Nelson, Krauss and their backing musicians. Among their number is Jerry Douglas, who visited Shetland as part of Transatlantic Sessions.
“That was a really great tour. Those folks are great musicians, the people in Alison’s band – they’re the best of the best. Jerry is incredible, he came on and played with us, a really nice guy too.
“I’m a big fan of Willie’s songwriting. A lot of people know who he is… [but often] just make pot jokes and ignore the fact that Willie’s one of the best songwriters that we’ve ever had.”
Isbell first made his name when he joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001, spending six years writing and recording with the band. He contributed some of their best loved songs including ‘Outfit’ and ‘The Day John Henry Died’.
Since 2007 he has released a succession of albums under his own name and with his band the 400 Unit, perhaps most notably 2011’s ‘Here We Rest’.
Last year’s ‘Southeastern’ is a more stripped-down affair than some of his louder earlier work, and contains some of his finest compositions - including ‘Travelling Alone’, which features Shires’ voice and violin.
Just over two years ago, prior to touring the UK with fellow alt-country singer Ryan Adams, Isbell gave up drinking. He suddenly found he had “a whole lot more time” to devote to his craft, which helped him to make a career-best record.
“The last year’s been a whole lot easier for us. Shows have been good, we’re getting good audiences, and it’s a really good time,” he adds.
Neil Riddell of Ragged Wood Promotions, which is presenting the show in association with Shetland Arts, said: “We’re really pleased to have attracted two terrific live performers – particularly at a time when they seem to have hit a sweet spot in terms of writing and singing. It should be a great night.”