It's hard to believe, but in the three months since Jason Isbell postponed his September 2017 Dallas concert following a death in bassist Jimbo Hart's family, the Alabama native's stature has grown even higher than it was before.
The Bomb Factory and its over 4,000-person capacity was packed, wall-to-wall, on Friday night by the time opener James McMurtry was halfway through his expertly offered set.
It's worth noting that in 2011, Isbell toured as a co-headliner with McMurtry in venues a fraction of the size of Deep Ellum's Bomb Factory. But as 2017 ended, Isbell's name was all over social media feeds -- and from people outside his loyal throng.
In November at the Country Music Association awards, Isbell's latest record, The Nashville Sound, was nominated for Album of the Year. As deserving of praise as the record is, it was a shock to see him receive that kind of attention from a major award show that devotes itself to the pop-friendly polish of mainstream country radio.
It's safe to assume that more than a few hardcore Luke Bryan fans were forced to ask themselves "What's an Isbell?" when Jason Isbell's name appeared next to A-listers such as Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town in the CMA Award's nominations for Album of the Year.
Isbell didn't win, but he dominated the annual cavalcade of year-end critics lists, including all-genre rankings from notable outlets such as Rolling Stone and Paste. And he lent his name and talent to raise money for Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat who was running for senator opposite controversial Republican nominee Roy Moore, by performing a benefit show.
But on Friday night as Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, began with blistering yet pristine takes on "Hope the High Road" and the Grammy-winning "24 Frames" -- two songs that artfully detail the tricky uncertainty and simple hope of everyday life -- we were quickly reminded that his songs are why people give a darn about Isbell. When, early in the set, he offered up goose-bump-inducing performances of "Decoration Day" and "Outfit," both songs originally written and recorded when Isbell was a member of modern southern rock group Drive by Truckers, the audience was reminded that Isbell has outgrown his original claim to fame as one of that band's guitar slingers.
Texas native and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, Isbell's wife, has often joined him for recent area performances, but she was absent Friday night. Perhaps her missing presence pushed the set into a more aggressive, electric rock direction overall, but there were still quieter moments showcasing Isbell's range as a songwriter. "Cover Me Up," the gorgeous love story between he and Shires, may not have been the same without her there, but its resonance was still substantial, especially when he sang about his much-publicized sobriety: "But I sobered up, and I swore off that stuff, forever this time," to crowd cheers.
And in the encore, "If We Were Vampires," the resplendent ode to his love for his wife, the notes floated through the venue with elegance.
Even though Isbell is a humorous, outspoken Twitter follow, he let the stories stay in between the notes, which was just fine. An Isbell show is so good, and here's why: His songs and stories speak more boldly than any of his well-deserved accomplishments or social media musings.