I quickly typed out the list of my best of 2019, committed to not thinking too hard about it, leaned back to look on it and thought, “Almost half this list, in one way or another, came to me from Brandi Carlile.”
Early in the year my friends Jason and Christy sent me a text with news of an August Jason Isbell/Brandi Carlile show near where they live in Kansas City. Since I am eager to share my love of Isbell’s music with all my closest friends, I typed out an immediate “Yes.” They are so lucky, I thought, to finally get to see him in concert as I have so many times. If they have to endure the opening set of some singer/songwriter girl from the northwest, it’ll be worth it for them.
It’s true, I was relatively unaware of Brandi Carlile before this year. I knew about The Story, but honestly connected it to Dolly Parton and Sara Ramirez (Callie on Grey’s Anatomy), thinking Carlile was just a songwriter who might have recorded it, but who put it out into the world for others to use. What makes me feel less ashamed about my Brandi Carlile ignorance is that 2019 has been labeled as the year that the wider world “discovered” her, even though she’s had a sizable cult following for many years.
What I’ve learned about her this year is that beyond her meteoric voice and wise-beyond-her-years songwriting abilities, her true gifts to the world are the cohort of others she has assembled around her, and her unselfishness in sharing them with the rest of the world.
This piece of the list includes #’s 11, 10, 4, and 2 on my best of 2019 list, but as I sit down to write, more keep coming to mind and I’m losing count. Here are just a few of the good things that have come to me from Brandi Carlile this year:
The War and Treaty
I eventually learned that the show in August wasn’t Brandi Carlile opening for Jason Isbell, but was rather a co-headlining show. The opening act was “The War and Treaty.” The name sounded like a hipster, indie band from Cleveland, Omaha, Morgantown, or some other unexpected, out of the way mid-sized city. So I was surprised to hear the soaring sounds of gospel and blues and soul when we walked into the amphitheater, their set just beginning. I liked what I was hearing, but it was a bit too loud for me to get into it. In the days to come, however, I downloaded their album “Healing Tide” and listed to it almost exclusively for the next few weeks.
If you’ve followed Brandi Carlile’s year at all, you are likely aware of the song that stopped me in my tracks and made my jaw drop, which will, of course, make an appearance in this post. The most stunning surprise from that song came out of the voice of Yola Carter. That surprise led me to Yola’s album Walk Through the Fire, that weds country and soul music into some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard all year. Especially notable is Ride out In the Country and It Aint Easier.
The idea for The Highwomen, a female country supergroup that would challenge country radio to do what they haven’t done since the 1990’s– play more than 2 female artists in a given hour–, came from Amanda Shires, a Texas Country singer from Lubbock who moonlights as the fiddle player for Jason Isbell, who is also her husband. But Shires, in telling the story, is the first to admit that The Highwomen is all about the energy and brilliance of Brandi Carlile.
I was on a ride back from a work event in East Texas when the song “Highwomen” was released. I listened to it on repeat the entire 2 hour trip. Just that one song. It is that good. The album is equally monumental. It is as “country”as any country album you are going to hear. It’s so good that it is more than just a challenge for country radio to play it, it’s a dare. So far, from what I can tell, country radio hasn’t taken them up on the dare, and good old boys who complain about how there’s no “good country” music anymore are missing out on some of the best.
Brandi Carlile at The Bomb Factory in Dallas and Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell at Providence Ampitheater in Bonner Springs, MO
After realizing Brandi Carlile is more than just a “singer-songwriter from the northwest”, I downloaded her 2018 album “By the Way, I Forgive You”, which began my deep dive. Here’s what I learned during my year of education in her music: Everything about her is spiritual, with undercurrents of a Christianity that rejected her, but of which she has embraced all the notes of grace and mercy that many believers teach, but forget to actually practice. Everything about her music is hands and eyes wide open.
I found out she was going to be in Dallas in April, so I went. I ran into old friends who have been fans for years. It was a joyous experience, as was the Carlile/Isbell concert in Missouri in August.
After several years of being immersed in the music of Jason Isbell, he now as a counterpart. In fact, I have come to believe that their music are just opposite sides of the same coin. Darkness and light. Or, if you will, Jason Isbell sings Lent songs, Brandi Carlile gives us Easter music.