Last week, when Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell accepted three Americana Music Award, his top-notch band the 400 Unit wasn’t left out of the festivities. Winner of best duo/group (to go with best song and album awards), among the band members on hand to receive the honor was Carolina native Sadler Vaden, Isbell’s guitarist of the past five years.
“This has been the first album with the 400 Unit name back into the fold after a while, and it was cool to be able to get up there and say something,” says Vaden, on a short break between last weekend’s show in Chicago and the band’s show at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre Sunday.
Anyone who has seen the band live knows the best-group award is well-deserved.
“We work a lot. The last five years we’ve done albums together and then we’ll go on the road for a year and a half,” says Vaden. “We’re tight, but we try not to concern ourselves with being too tight. I think we’re one of those bands people enjoy live because we have a lot of different elements. We’ve got the rock thing, the folk things, a little country, blues, and rhythm and blues. It’s a wide palette.”
It’s true. Isbell can rip on guitar with the best blues shredders, or draw tears with songs like “Elephant” and “Cover Me Up.”
Vaden admits some songs hit him hard at first.
“‘If We Were Vampires’” off ‘The Nashville Sound’ hit me like a ton of bricks,” he recalls. “Jason doesn’t give us demos, so we hadn’t heard it when he went in and played it in the studio. Listening to the lyrics, you’re like ‘Wow.’”
“I’m exposing myself hardcore, but when I got the mastered version of the album, I was putting fresh sheets on the bed and listening to it from the other room and I just started crying. There I was, a grown man crying, making our bed. It was pretty funny,” he says with a laugh. “That song in particular is powerful. I see tons of people crying in the audience, hanging on to their spouse or a friend.”
Vaden — who was born in Charlotte, but grew up in North Myrtle Beach and Summerville, S.C. — picked up the guitar after a trip to Farm Aid in Columbia in 1996. When he was 18, he founded the rock band Leslie, which once did an extended residency at Charlotte’s Double Door Inn and opened for Isbell enough times for the two to become familiar. After Leslie broke up, he joined Southern rock stalwarts Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ on guitar, moved to Nashville and joined the 400 Unit after the release of its commercial and critical breakthrough “Southeastern.”
“I came in right as the train was leaving the station, but I didn’t know how much steam it was going to gain,” he says, recognizing that it’s a pretty cush gig seeing the world and traveling on a bus compared to the days with Leslie in the trenches. “I’ve seen a steady incline.”
He admits his own songwriting and musicianship has benefited from the time spent with Isbell and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s Kevn Kinney. He’s released three singles this year and is working on a solo project in his down time at home.
He’s also running into old friends from high school who had no idea he was playing in a big-time band.
“The last time we played Charlotte, there was a girl I went to high school with at the show and she had no idea I was playing in the band,” he says. “So it’s really cool to play the Carolinas and see people at shows I went to high school with who don’t know I play with Jason. It’s definitely wide-reaching.”
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
When: 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd.