FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Jason Isbell recalls his teenage self standing on the stage of the Spirit of Freedom Festival at McFarland Park.
Even back then, Isbell was dreaming big. Today, the Greenhill native is a multi-hit, four-time Grammy winner singer-songwriter who performs worldwide with his 400 Unit Band.
Yet, he never has forgotten his roots, and the very stage at McFarland Park on the banks of the Tennessee River where he used to play for Spirit of Freedom festivals has become the location for the annual ShoalsFest, which is Oct. 1-2 this year.
“That spot on the river is so beautiful,” Isbell said during a Wednesday news conference.
The annual festival he helped create in 2019 has grown throughout the years, but remains a gift from Isbell to both the public and aspiring 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 people could go see and it inspire them.
“When I played the Spirit of Freedom, that was the largest crowd I’d played before in my life. I’m happy to have this in the same place and same location. There are so many memories there, and it means so much to me to be able to return there and do this.”
It also is a dream come true for Isbell to have an event such as this in the Shoals, so local residents can attend without lengthy travel.
“I’ve always dreamed of a big stage of local musicians and international musicians where I wouldn’t have to drive a long way,” he said.
The festival includes a mixture 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 has a remarkable musical heritage, and Isbell said many of the musicians playing at the festival reflect that in their music. They also often pay homage to the area.
“We’ve all written a lot of songs about this area,” he said. “There’s references in those things that we experienced together growing up around here.”
Isbell said the Shoals’ musical gift is a natural part of the area.
“I would say there’s a quality level to music that comes from here that I think is higher on average than it is in a lot of other studio towns, and I think part of that reason is because we do things in a way that is patient, and also we have a family tradition of music here,” he said. “I learned to play from my uncles and grandparents before I met any of the local musicians.
“There’s also this connection to music here in the Shoals area, especially, and in a lot of similar small towns. I think the connection is more than, ‘This is my job.’ I think the connection is, ‘This is how I express myself. This is what’s going to give me some individuality and some personhood.’”
Isbell said the musicians at the festival and in the Shoals in general are the types who believe in making their own sounds. That always has been the case in Shoals music.
“A lot of people who are making those songs and making those records actually cared about the quality of what they’re doing and not just looking to chase some 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 this helps continue the wave of a new generation of successful Shoals musicians. He said he has been given the gift of mentoring from earlier musicians and hopes to continue doing the same for next generations.
“The gift is a circle,” Isbell said. “At first you have the gift of music or some kind of creative pursuit, and the people around you give you the gift of their time and their attention, and then you give it as a gift to everybody else.
“But eventually you realize it’s one big thing, one big process and it just moving through you into younger people. That’s the gift, really. That’s the thing that serves you the most, is passing it on to someone else and then hearing it through them.”