At the age of 10, guitarist and songwriter Sadler Vaden caught a glimpse of his future when his parents took him to see the Who, featuring one of his eventual guitar heroes, Pete Townshend. That night wasn’t just the beginning of his infatuation with music of the ’60s British invasion, though. The opening band was the hard rock–and-country-influenced band Drivin’ N Cryin’. Some 15 years later, Vaden joined the group as lead guitarist, playing sideman on songs like the sing-along “Straight to Hell,” the hooky “Honeysuckle Blue” and, their biggest hit, “Fly Me Courageous.”
“They let me off the leash big time,” Vaden says of Drivin’ N Cryin’, during a break from his current gig in the 400 Unit, Jason Isbell’s rock-solid accompanying band. “I didn’t have to sing and entertain or be the frontman. It was a really good lesson in just being a sideman.”
Vaden may still be a sideman for Isbell and co., but his profile is growing nevertheless. His guitar work is captured on the recently released Live at the Ryman, recorded over the band’s 2017 five-night stand in Nashville, an annual affair that keeps growing, not unlike the Allman Brothers Band’s residencies at New York City’s Beacon Theater. “Our adrenaline’s pumping really hard when we play the Ryman,” Vaden says. “The energy in the room is fantastic every time. So many wonderful musicians have graced that stage, and the history is so rich that you want to deliver a great show.”
On Live at the Ryman, Vaden plays slide-heavy solos on “Last of My Kind,” from 2017’s two-time Grammy-winning The Nashville Sound, and the fan favorite “Cover Me Up,” from Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough album, Southeastern. Elsewhere, his playing complements Isbell, from the fingerpicked “If We Were Vampires” to the raging rocker “Cumberland Gap.” “Some nights Jason’s on fire, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell was that?’” Vaden says of their guitar duels on songs like “Never Gonna Change.” “And then there are some nights where I’m throwing fire back at him. It’s cool to have that Walsh/Felder moment where we’re like, Oh yeah? Well, check this out!”
Prior to his work with country heavyweights, Vaden fronted his own band in Charleston, South Carolina, and actually opened for both Isbell and Drivin’ N Cryin’. After moving to Nashville in 2011, he continued to write and record songs, releasing Radio Road the following year. Joining the 400 Unit in 2013, just when Isbell’s star began to rise, kept him on that path for the next few years, but his self-titled 2016 follow-up was worth the wait. On it, Vaden channels his love of classic rock acts like the Who, Tom Petty and the Beatles, while smartly playing for the song, not the solo. “My favorite guitarists were members of great bands,” he says. “So I think I try to write really good songs and not make it about me being a guitarist.”
Although Vaden plans to keep recording solo albums, for now he’s enjoying the freedom that comes with releasing one-off singles, such as “Still Kids,” where he grooves and stomps like T. Rex fronted by Alex Chilton, and the chiming “Anywhere but Here.” “I watched Ron Howard’s  Eight Days a Week documentary about the Beatles, and it occurred to me that they were recording and putting music out at such a fast pace,” he says. “I realized that I had the freedom to do that. I’m not signed to a label. I could go in and record and put something out. And it’s not something a lot of rock and roll people do.