Singer Jason Isbell returns to Alabama roots with ‘ShoalsFest’
By BERNIE DELINSKI, TimesDaily
FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Jason Isbell recalls his teenage years standing on stage at the Spirit of Freedom Festival in McFarland Park.
Even back then, Isbell dreamed big. Today, the Greenhill native is a multi-hit, four-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who performs around the world with his 400 Unit Band.
Yet he never forgot his roots, and the very stage in McFarland Park on the banks of the Tennessee River, where he performed for the Spirit of Freedom festivals, has become the venue for the annual ShoalsFest, which runs from 1 to October 2. year.
“This place on the river is so beautiful,” Isbell said at a press conference Wednesday.
The annual festival he helped create in 2019 has grown over the years, but remains a gift from Isbell to audiences and budding musicians.
“I wanted to do it in a place where I wasn’t just trying to do it for myself,” Isbell said. “I wanted to do something that people could go and see and inspire them.
“When I played the Spirit of Freedom, it was the biggest crowd I’ve played before in my life. I’m happy to have this in the same place and in the same place. There are so many memories there down, and it means so much to me to be able to go back and do this.
It’s also a dream come true for Isbell to have an event like this in the shoals, so local residents can attend without long trips.
“I always dreamed of a big scene of local musicians and international musicians where I wouldn’t have to drive for long,” he said.
The festival features a mix of local, national and international names including Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Drivin N Cryin, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Amanda Shires, Brittney Spencer, John Moreland, John Paul White, Chris Tompkins, Gary Nichols, Billy Allen and the Pollies, the Wanda Band and Steve Trash.
The Shoals have a remarkable musical heritage, and Isbell said many musicians playing at the festival reflect this in their music. They also often pay homage to the region.
“We’ve all written a lot of songs about this area,” he said. “There are references in those things that we experienced together growing up here.”
Isbell said the Shoals’ musical gift is a natural part of the region.
“I would say there’s a level of quality in the music that comes out of here that I think is on average higher than in a lot of other studio towns, and I think part of that reason is that we do things in a patient way, and we also have a family tradition of music here,” he said. “I learned to play from my uncles and grandparents before I met the one of the local musicians.
“There’s also this connection to the music here in the Shoals area, in particular, and a lot of similar small towns. I think the connection is more than, ‘It’s my job.’ I think the connection is, “That’s how I express myself. This is what will give me a certain individuality and a certain personality.
Isbell said musicians at the festival and the Shoals in general are the type to believe in creating their own sounds. This has always been the case in Shoals music.
“A lot of people who make these songs and make these records actually care about the quality of what they’re doing and aren’t just looking to follow a trend,” he said. “They were trying to express themselves in a way that would keep them close to their family.”
As for ShoalsFest, Isbell hopes it will help continue the wave of a new generation of successful Shoals musicians. He said he has received the gift of mentorship from former musicians and hopes to continue to do the same for future generations.
“The gift is a circle,” Isbell said. “In the beginning, you have the gift of music or some kind of creative pursuit, and the people around you give you their time and attention, and then you give it to everyone as a gift.
“But eventually you realize it’s a big thing, a big process and it just moves through you at the younger ages. It’s the gift, really. That’s what serves you the most is to pass it on to someone else and then hear it through them.
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