Sheryl Crow and Jason Isbell link up for music-first night of songs and collaborative spirit

Photos by Clayton Taylor

Living in my insulated world, I want to believe that Jason Isbell is one of the most popular music acts in the world. He writes such fantastic songs, some of which have been covered by artists you know well – Zac Brown Band covered one of his memorials to a fallen soldier, and Isbell wrote a song made famous in the newest version of the movie “A Star is Born.” He’s a fantastic guitarist, and he started his music career as a hired gun in the Drive-By Truckers and you can see why. His voice boomed through the night air at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion on Friday (Aug. 30). It’s all there and on display.

Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion

Who: Breaking Benjamin with Three Days Grace, Chevelle and more
When: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 6
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $29.50 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or visit for information.

I asked three people, casually, what they thought of him after the show concluded. None had ever heard of him before the show. It was headliner Sheryl Crow’s show, and we were just there to soak it up.

There was a general consensus that he played well in my informal poll. But the woman beside me couldn’t quite get onboard. “He’s good, but he’s a little too dark for me.”

You might say the same about the state of affairs in the world. Life is good. It’s also ominous, and both things can be true.

There are political overtones in Isbell’s music, and subtle ones in Crow’s music as well, particularly in her later work. She has traded the fun-seeking vibe of “All I Want to Do” for a downtrodden Bob Dylan song, “Everything’s Broken,” which she performed with Isbell on Friday. That song, also with Isbell’s participation, is contained on her new album “Threads,” which came out on the day of her concert in Rogers. She quipped once that things in the world “can’t get much worse.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit / Photo: Clayton Taylor

But that was the only between-songs jab thrown in the night’s battle. Both musicians let their music speak for itself. Neither had a video board and neither said much except for to heap praise on their band members. Both bands were well-oiled machines. Crow might have an acoustic guitar-led, simplistic sound in theory, but in practice she’s backed by six musicians, including a pair of guitarists and a pedal steel player, which bulked up her acoustic jangle.

That sums up my impression of Crow as a performer, too. There’s more depth than I knew, and she’s at least a co-writer on almost every one of her songs. She has not aged. She first found fame more than 25 years ago, and she’s approaching 60 (she turned 57 in February). Pop songs don’t always age well, and while those weren’t my songs when I started listening to music there’s a charm there. Yes. That’s what I’m saying to all of you on record: I liked Sheryl Crow.

I probably liked Jason Isbell more, but that’s not a fair fight. I’ve been following him since his first post-Drive-By Truckers solo album. His album “Southeastern,” about his addiction struggles and his path to love and recovery, is one of the 10 best albums of the last decade. I’m only so objective here. Isbell and his backing band, The 400 Unit, got nearly equal stage time to Crow and her band. He used it to revisit a few songs from his earlier days, including the stomping southern rock number “Never Gonna Change” from his DBT days, but he focused even more on his newer work, including playing one song, “Overseas” that he’s yet to record. He brought more than one audience member to tears with his song “If We Were Vampires,” an ode to love but also to mortality. That’s the light and the dark that helps summarize Friday’s concert.

Sheryl Crow / Photo: Clayton Taylor

The music-first approach made for a good night, but a calmer one compared to recent events at the AMP. Without video boards or lots of other accoutrements, we were left to rely on the music alone. When the crowd recognized a song, they went for it. When they didn’t, it was fairly subdued. It was a night for those who like to think about their songs, digest lyrics and watch solid bands methodically take their turns showing off their skills.

When Jason Isbell comes to town, you should go see him. He’s one of the most important triple threats (that’s songwriting, singing and guitar playing) making music today. And you might want to see Sheryl Crow, too. She’s said her new album, the one released Friday, is her last full-length release. But she’s got more to give than you might expect.

Sheryl Crow / Photo: Clayton Taylor

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit / Photo: Clayton Taylor

Sheryl Crow Setlist Walmart AMP, Rogers, AR, USA, World Tour 2019

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Setlist Walmart AMP, Rogers, AR, USA 2019