In a different timeline, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden's solo material qualifies him as a rock star. That fairer world recognizes Vaden's similarities to fellow songwriter Tom Petty as more than an Americana archetype, opening the door for rock radio success.
In reality, rock radio is as far removed from the good ol' days as country radio, meaning Vaden's not likely to score hits comparable to his former band Drivin' N Cryin's claims to fame: 1989's "Straight to Hell" and 1991's "Fly Me Courageous." Like Nashville's finest rock 'n' roller Aaron Lee Tasjan, Vaden performed with Drivin' N Cryin' long after commercial success subsided. By the time Vaden joined the fold, lead singer Kevn Kinney was viewed as one of Americana's songwriting icons, not an alt-rock lifer.
"The thing is, there is no place for rock 'n' roll bands on the radio," Vaden says. "There's Americana radio and Triple-A, but rock radio is something completely different now. It's very much what they call active rock: It's very heavy and it's very angry sounding. Americana has become a catch-all for bands inspired by the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson or inspired by The Who and JJ Cale. That's where things fit in now. No one called Neil Young Americana. That's when rock 'n' roll was a genre."
Mainstream rock equaling juvenile yelling or slick pop with no in between impacts more than just how Vaden's work as a solo artist gets classified.
"I've always referred to Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit as a rock 'n' roll band," he adds. "I truly feel like we are."
On that note, another member of Isbell's band, Amanda Shires, writes rock songs, including new single "Deciphering Dreams."
So clearly, the rock world's missing out on what Americana's gladly claiming, but does genre matter all that much in 2020?
"I think we're in a genre-less period because it's kind of like, Harry Styles is pop music, but the last Harry Styles album had a few rock songs on it," Vaden says. "There are things filed under country that I don't think are country. I would not call Kacey Musgraves' last album a country record. That's just me. That's just my opinion. Does Dan + Shay sound country to me? It doesn't. It sounds like pop. It's kind of way open out there."
Vaden's journey from fronting a band called Leslie out of Charleston, South Carolina (2004-2011) to professional musician gigs with Drivin' N Cryin' and Isbell continues March 6 with the release of Anybody Out There? "Next to You," "Modern Times," "Tried and True" and "Golden Child" capture an electric guitar-slinging rocker who'd just as well talk about classic Aerosmith than namedrop the usual singer-songwriter suspects.
The full-length Vaden calls his "finest work to date" is chock-full of rock riffs and the types of vivid story-songs sought by Americana and country audiences. Vaden self-produced the album, which was engineered by multi-platinum producer Paul Ebersold and mastered by Grammy award-winner Richard Dodd.
Don't mistake this as a throwback album though. As Vaden's bio puts it, its recurring themes "deal with the challenges of creating a true human connection in a modern, technology-obsessed world."