Four Grammy Awards. A song performed by Bradley Cooper in the hit film "A Star is Born." And a 2012 appearance at Master Musicians Festival.
Jason Isbell has a lot to be proud of -- and MMF is proud to have him back.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit make their return to Somerset's own two-day outdoor music festival this weekend, this time as the headlining act. In the seven years since Isbell made his first appearance here, the "Americana" performer's star has shot into the stratosphere, but so has MMF's. In fact, the festival's board president Tiffany Finley said that Alabamian Isbell turned down another potential gig to come back to Pulaski County.
"He was already talented as the lead singer of the Drive-By Truckers when we had him back in 2012, when he wasn't even top billing on the festival," said Finley. "So for us to be able to honor that family aspect of our festival -- since once you play at our festival, we always support you -- it means the world to us."
Isbell's songs "24 Frames" and "If We Were Vampires" both won Grammy Awards, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, and "Maybe It's Time" was in the the 2018 "A Star Is Born" remake. He's also known for tracks like "Alabama Pines," Super 8," and "Cover Me Up," and has released 10 albums, live and studio, in his post-Drive-By Truckers career. Much of that success came after his first time at MMF.
"One of the most unique characteristics of our festival is the board's ability to find and feature artists just before they make it big," said Finley. "The Avett Brothers come to mind. St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Jason Isbell. We are incredibly honored Jason Isbell is returning to our stage, having risen to the top of the Americana scene and experiencing continued success. It is a wonderful testament to the blood, sweat and tears we put in to this festival."
Finley compared Isbell to last year's headliner, Americana icon John Prine, calling Isbell likely to "one day be a legend" like Prine is now.
"I think he's one of the best songwriters of my generation," said Finley. "His words are super-smart and it draws you in, but it's also a rocking show. It's not just him standing with a guitar. He puts on a real rock show."
Isbell is one of a dozen acts performing on the main stage this weekend and one of 26 overall split between there, the Eastwood Records Stage (presented by Citizens National Bank) in the Artist Valley, and the SomerSessions tent, a new feature this year offering more intimate performances.
Finley talked a little about each of the main stage artists with the Commonwealth Journal this week, a roster that she and the MMF board are excited about.
"I think that it's been overall well-received actually," she said. "I haven't heard any negative comments about the line-up. Everyone is super excited. Ticket sales are going well, just the buzz around the state.
"It amazes me every year how much more well-known we are across the state of Kentucky," she added. "We feel like we have a lot of people rooting for us."
Some of those people might be excited to see bluesman Cedric Burnside, grandson of the well-known performer R.L. Burnside. Taking the stage at approximately 10 p.m., Burnside will be the Friday night headliner this year, and will offer the opportunity to see if everything, even MMF, truly is better with Burnside.
"He is very bluesy," said Finley. "MM Board Vice President Jessica Crockett and I saw him down at AmericanaFest (in Nashville), and we were blown away. His showmanship is amazing."
Friday's line-up starts at 4 p.m. with Lake Cumberland area act Spooky Fox, headed by Yovany Pino.
"This kid is so passionate about what he does. He puts all this emotion into his performances," said Finley. "Don't sleep on Spooky Fox. Get to the field early to see him."
Next is Nick Jamerson, formerly of Sundy Best, another Kentucky act known well by local audiences.
"(Sundy Best) headlined Friday night the year Willie Nelson was here. It was (Jamerson's) birthday, it was very magical for him,": said Finley. "He's on his own now, doing the Americana thing. He's amazing, and I know he's going to do well in his own right."
The Tillers are from the Cincinnati area and "are for lovers of progressive bluegrass," said Finley, and Charley Crockett falls into the 8:30 on Friday space that "seems like every year is for who we think will be the next big thing." Finley described Crockett as "old country" but with a blues twist -- think Merle Haggard and Gary Clark Jr.
Burnside closes out Friday night, then Saturday starts at 11:45 a.m. with a male singer-songwriter's panel, this year's answer to the 2018 group of women artists. Performers include John Clay, Eric Bolander, Tim DeLonjay, Tim Lancaster, and Darrin Hacquard.
"This year, we're doing the gentlemen," said Finley. "We've picked five amazing singer-songwriters from across Kentucky who will take turns telling their stories. We love doing these panels to give a taste of what Kentucky has to offer."
The next two acts are The Handshake Deals and the Mama Said String Band, both of whom have "been regulars at Jarfly (Brewing Co.), bringing in big crowds" to the local venues, said Finley. "They've kind of become part of our family, and we're excited to give them the experience of being on the big stage for MMF."
Even Napoleon would find The Josephines to be dynamite. The Bowling Green, Ky., band has "just been signed and are really making big strides" as a "big energy" bluegrass band, said Finley. She compared them to The Dead South, an MMF act last year that ignited the crowd's enthusiasm.
Lost Dog Street Band comes from Muhlenberg County, Ky. -- a place known for its connections to last year's MMF star Prine -- and is one of several husband-and-wife duos at this year's festival, noted Finley, who called it "dark country, heart-wrenching music," but also "very lively."
Finley was extremely excited about another husband-and-wife pairing, The War and Treaty. Michael and Tanya Trotter come to Somerset having roots in the Washington D.C. area, and have lived through an epic series of circumstances. Michael joined the U.S. Army after 9/11 and found himself serving in Iraq, stationed in one of Saddam Hussein's destroyed palaces. There, Michael played Hussein's piano and his musical talent was discovered by his captain, who inspired Michael to pursue those gifts. When that captain was killed, Michael's tribute to him led to a new calling: writing and performing songs for the memorial services of soldiers.
"I think The War and Treaty is going to be big," said Finley. "I love every artist on the bill, but I love when the audience doesn't expect something and it blows their mind. That's the feeling you get when you watch The War and Treaty.
"The feeling you get when they're on stage -- they're so humble and kind and so blown away that the crowd loves them -- you feel it all the way in your legs," said Finley. "The hair on your legs stands up when they perform."
The War and Treaty is the last act before Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Also on the schedule is the art auction and Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, and McNeil Music Center winner Abbey Burns, who performs Friday night before Cedric Burnside.
On the Eastwood Records stage Friday is Senora May, the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, and Jericho Woods; on Saturday, it's Lylak, Abby Hamilton, Jen Tackett and Wonky Tonk, Kevin Dalton & the Tuesday Blooms, the Baja Yetis, Laid Back Country Picker, and Johnny Conqueroo.
The SomerSessions tent schedule on Saturday includes Chris and Jenn Shouse, The Winetree, Pearlie Jenkins, Sean Whiting, and Chelsea Nolan and Josh Nolan.
The 2019 Master Musicians Festival, presented by the Don Franklin Family of Dealerships, gets underway Friday at 4 p.m., and at 11:30 a.m. Saturday and runs all day. Tickets are $25 for Friday's session, $50 for Saturday, and $70 for a two-day pass. Children 12 and under are admitted free. Tickets can be purchased at the gate or at www.mastermusiciansfestival.org.