“So here I am on my stool tonight
Yeah, I’m practicing for the afterlife,
Cause when I’m nothing but a pile of bones
I’m gonna come back as a country song.”
“I meet a lot of teenagers,” Alan Jackson says. “It’s surprising how many like real classic country music… They go out and find it, even if they can’t hear it on the radio. They know.”
He pauses for a moment, half- laughs. He’s been here before.
“It’s funny,” Jackson remembers, “back in the mid-80s, there was so much pop stuff (on country radio), and I had my little band. We were playing Hank, Jr and George Strait who just had a deal, but the rest was Haggard, Jones, Gene Watson… There were no young people making realcountry music.
“I was 20 or less; I figured I’d move to Nashville, try to find a place to make this music. That fall, Randy Travis hit – and I thought, ‘Well, okay…’ The labels stillwouldn’t sign me! Said I was too country, so there I was… and I didn’t know what to do.”
The one thing he did know: he couldn’t change the music he loved.
In not changing, he set the stage for the modern traditionalists from Alison Krauss to Lee Ann Womack. He also provided the balance for Garth Brooks’ arena rock country.
Along the way, he spent two decades creating some of turn of the century Nashville’s most enduring commercial music. Whether it was the breathtaking post-9/11 musing “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning,” the happy hour friendly “Five O’Clock Somewhere” with Jimmy Buffett or the seriously Southern boy coming of age romp “Chattahoochee,” not to mention the pop-come-country skewering “Gone Country,” Jackson kept it real – and connected.
It’s easy to look at the success, and write it off as more “Nashville Cheese.” But that would miss some of the best classic country music of the last 25 years. Forget Nashville’s brassy marketing, look instead to the essence of songs like the breakout heartache of boy doesn’t get girl “Here In The Real World” or the tortured “Last Night I Climbed The Walls” and move forward.
Indeed, keep coming. All the way to Thirty Miles West, Jackson’s first album for another label since signing his original record deal. Named for how far off the Dixie Highway his hometown is, Thirty Miles West is as strong as any album Jackson’s made – and it comes at a time when country’s gone bombastic, slicker’n pop and knuckle-dragging in its willingness to dumb down.
“I’ll be the bad guy, I’ll take the black eye
When I walk out, you can slam the door
I’ll be the S.O.B. if that’s what you need from me
So you don’t have to love me anymore…”
“When I heard it,” Alan Jackson says of “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore,” the lead single from his first record for his first new label in a career now in its third decade, “I was like, ‘Now that’sa country song…’
“It was so good, I thought that. Then I called up Adam (Wright, half the duo the Wrights, and Jackson’s nephew), and said, ‘Are you sure you wanna waste this thing on me? I’ll bet any of the young guys would cut it. That’d be a lot better for your career.”
Alan Jackson, a CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year, has been around enough o know. His nephew, who at 4 was the ring bearer at Jackson’s wedding to wife Denise, has enough real country in his blood to know, too.
Adam Wright wanted the best. He told the future Hall of Famer to sing it.
After all, there are few modern country singers whose voice is as authentic, as believable and as inherently country as the kid from Newnan, Georgia. Strong without being stiff, warm and reassuring, yet capable of shouldering the load, supple with enough bend to get the nuances in a note or feeling, the kind of “there” that’s worn, but not worn out: the same kind of voice that gave Haggard and Strait their staying power.
It’s a funny thing with country music. We love our stars ‘til we’re bored with them. Outsiders decide who “the legends” are, then decry the industry for moving on. Sometimes those legends have let the music sag… and sometimes the public taste has moved away because they’re told this is tired.
Ironically, Jackson’s got a good grip on all that. He’s also got a good grip on what kind of music he makes – and if long ago, he stood silent, getting passed over again and again until he was signed to a Nashville start-up of New York powerhouse Arista Records by songwriter/producer/manager Tim Dubois, who produced Restless Heart, written Alabama’s “Close Enough To Perfect” and Jerry Reed’s “She’s Got the Goldmine (& I Got The Shaft),” and Clive Davis, the man behind Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow and Alicia Keys.
“My sound is pretty much the same as those first demos Keith and I cut,” Jackson says. “When I go onstage at night, I think it’s just about being honest and true to who you are, how the songs are. It’s pretty basic: country music helps you when you hurt and gives you a smile when you need it."
“You don’t need to be real aggressive (musically), because it’s real life. People know."
It’s intriguing that in today’s rush for bigger, badder, louder country, Jackson endures. Indeed, he gets better. Between the wry maintain your dignity break-up song “Look Her In The Eye and Lie,” the quick picking catalogue of small town Southern life “Dixie Highway,” featuring hippie country’s Zach Brown, or the broken realization of powerlessness “When I Saw You Leaving,” Jackson is seeking to capture life as its lived, not idealized. Not one to compete, he knows the power of the truth.
“There’s nothing sensational about my life or the stage show,” he says. “I’ve just always felt that music should be the most important part. Everybody wants to be about the celebrity, and everything else.
“You see it even in concert,” Jackson says of the evolution. “These acts come out and they’re real loud and aggressive in front of us, then we come out. The sound level drops, but the crowd energy doesn’t… They know.”
He doesn’t have to say anything more. Alan Jackson, who will acknowledge his records are thicker sounding than Haggard or classic balladeer Don Williams, realizes there’s always been pop and rock aspirations in Nashville. He just knows it’s not something worth chasing.
Back when there was nothing going on, Jackson – who got a publishing deal because his pretty young wife Denise, then a stewardess, talked her husband up to Glen Campbell in an airport, giving him a tape that landed the quiet aspiring songwriter/traditionalist a publishing deal – aligned himself with Keith Stegall, the man behind Randy Travis neo-traditionalist template Storms of Life
Storms set off an entire movement. One that included Dwight Yoakam, the Judds, kd lang and grounded the ascendance of George Strait, Reba McEntire and Ricky Skaggs, a little later Keith Whitley and Lyle Lovett. All that music, but no deal for Jackson.
The polite young man who once delivered mail at The Nashville Network just wanted in.
Jackson also knew there was only one producer for him. He wanted Stegall.
“Keith understands that thing about real,” Jackson says. “If I sing it, and it’s not perfect, but feels right? That’s what we want. We cut pretty much live, pretty much keep it all the musicians playing – and hold onto that.”
Unapologetically country, plain-spoken and willing to take on the cracked thumbnail, busted knuckles pain of the common man, Jackson was a classic country star long before the hits started happening. If “Blue Blooded Woman (Redneck Man)” stumbled over its forced cleverness, “Here In The Real World” blew up. A song where the real world tears you open, the movie’s ending sucks and the boy ends up alone was contrary to the notion of Happy Uptempo Positive Love Songs – and it worked.
From there, it was an onslaught: “Chasing That Neon Rainbow,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Wanted,” “I’m In Love with a Waitress (& I Don’t Even Know Her Name),” “Chattahoochee,” “She’s Got The Rhythm (I Got The Blues),” and the chilling trip to Hank Sr’s grave “Midnight In Montomgery,” as well as covers of Roger Miller’s “Tall, Tall Trees.” “Mercury Blues” and Charly McClain’s sassy “Who’s Cheating Who.”
Alan Jackson was tall, slow and quickened pulses in his faded jeans and white hat. But what really revved people up was his honest approach to country, merging his small town Georgia life with both a sense of humor and the agony people could find themselves in.
“Life, love, heartache, dying, having fun…”
Jackson’s trying to explain what his songs are made of. “Having a drink, having a normal life. It’s anybody who’s trying to survive, have a family, watch the sun rise, maybe fish a little and try to enjoy their time here.”
Here are a few more hits, just to be sure of the who and the why he is so enduring: the skewering rock-pop’s authenticity grab “Gone Country,” a fiddle’n’steel blaze of Eddie Cochrain’s “Summertime Blues,” the chilling, half-spoken “I’ll Go On Loving You,” the small town solidarity “Little Man,” the devastating classicism of “Between the Devil & Me,” the declaration of who he is “Where I Come From,” “Small Town Southern Man” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” the tear-stained love endures waltz “Remember When,” the brush it off “Good Time,” the tropical kickback of West’s “Long Way To Go” and the slip-through-your-hands bar room pluck of “As She’s Walking Away” with Zach Brown.
“Had a chicken pen right in the backyard
Clothesline running east to west
Butter bean and tomato garden
Six days work and a Sunday rest”
All those songs, all that music core-samples the highway builders, long distance haulers, building framers, concrete pourers, farmers, insurance adjustors, air conditioning installers, mechanics, nurses, postal workers and beyond. True as it is “to people, who you know, Holly, really work for what they take home,” those sentiments rise up to the white collar plateaus, to anyone uncertain about how life is evolving in these uncertain time. He’s captured life in songs, life lived – for the most part – no matter where you are on the socio-econ spectrum, stitched together with some smart fiddle licks, blaring steel punctuations and pools of sadness, banjo for sparkle, mandolin for sweetness.
If you stopped there, you’d be doing pretty good. But that’s just the surface.
The life most country fans live isn’t introspective. It’s working class, often farm or small town based. It’s the tanning bed, the nail parlor, the notion of church, tubing, fishing and off-roading. Even in the cities, there’s a different way of making ends meet when you look around the parking lot…
For intellectuals, these are not people you’re gonna party with. Indeed, a recent post on an industry insider’s Facebook page sneered at the “16,000 drunken Snookies in cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes in the back of pick-ups” crammed into the parking lot before a major Northeast country show.
The insider missed that these people’s lives don’t look like their’s. But these people are living inside their client’s – and other country radio acts’ – music.
“I wish I could tell you how many songs I’ve written that people come up and tell me that’s their life… They’ve lived it,” the Grammy-winner explains with a chuckle, that turns tenderly serious. “It kinda takes me back a little… ‘5 O’Clock Somewhere’ is an easy song to live, but then they come up and talk about ‘Sissy’s Song,’ ‘Remember When’… a 17-year old told me about their 60 year old grandparents, how that was their love.
“And ‘Where Were You’…”
Ahh, “Where Were You.” It was the moment Jackson expressed the depth of our nation’s collective humanity. Eschewing his original “big superstar production number” on the 2001 CMA Awards, the soft-spoken Georgian sat on a stool with his guitar and exhaled “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?”
In the starkness juxtaposed to the big flashy awards show, he gave the nation a breath-taking meditation on the unthinkable in the wake of 9/11.
Backstage, everyone stopped. Cold. The rush of live television didn’t matter. You had to listen. It was everything you thought, but couldn’t quite see. Certainly not express.
Not angry. No crying for vengeance, just posing the truth of “I’m just a simple man/ who can’t tell Iraq from Iran…”
In that moment, the kid who looked like he walked out of a Gary Cooper film became a statesman; he also became every one of us. The same way Hank Williams Sr could get inside your bones and shake out what you didn’t even know you were feeling.
“Look, I’ve had a flag on the back of my boat and on my barns for twenty-some years,” he cautions. “I was just being a person, trying to understand.”
Beyond being “person,” the man, who’s a perennial Entertainer of the Year winner, an always million-seller, the king of the radio charts, knows how to wrap a song in neon and tears or laughter. He distills life. Not just the rockin and ragin’, but the hope and the achin’.
What’s funny about being consistently great, though, is how easy it is to take that level of music as a given. Our faster, newer, lust for better culture always looks for the next thing. In that rush for new heroes, our standards implode.
Not that what follows isn’t capable of being better; but if you put Eric Church up against Steve Earle, would the songs stand up? Is Jason Aldean as full-tilt as Hank Jr at his most flagrant or self-aware? Is Carrie Underwood’s steroidal Stepford country as affecting as Faith Hill or Martina McBride? (We won’t even start on Tammy, Dolly orLoretta!)
Yes, each generation has their “own” brand of country. Many artists win based on momentum and filling a void. Many established stars lose the level of excellence and begin a slow, tragic erosion no one around them shores up: Xeroxing what was or chasing songs too young for their long in the tooth reality. Neither is pretty.
Then there’s Alan Jackson, who through some business changes might’ve lost a little heart. Jackson’s a sensitive beast, one who feels life – and it shows up in his songs.
Funny things happen with the ones built to last. A change in the weather – or the business – it becomes a wild bird in a cage. It still sings, just not as sweet.
Same thing with Jackson. The man who recorded Here In The Real World, A Lot About Livin’ (And A Lot About Love), Who I Am, Drive, Don’t Rock The Jukebox, Everything I Love and Drive, had set the standard so many times, what’s the point?
After two decades; why should this shift be any different?
Because songwriters like Jackson don’t just lose it, even if they lose their taste for how things are going. With the return of long-time catalyst/manager Nancy Russell, who’s part of Jackson’s career for the last 15 years, and Arista marketing visionary Mike Dungan, then heading Capitol Nashville, it seemed time to stoke the fires again.
“Talk about life, talk about death
Talk about catchin’ every breath
Talk about when talk about why…
Talk is cheap and time’s a wastin’
Get busy livin’ or at least die trying”
Jackson isn’t interested in competing with the Luke Bryans, nor the Brantley Gilberts or Jason Aldeans. He wouldn’t say that’s beneath him, but he might suggest that the best competition he has is own standards and execution.
If Alan Jackson’s being honest, the only person worth competing with is… himself.
“I write what I feel,” he says. “What I like at the time, where my head is.
“My perspective changes as I age. It’s hard to sing neon-leaning love songs now…”
“The days just go by quickly
The nights just never end
As time gets so much more precious
Every minute an old friend”
Real life. It’s what Alan Jackson had always written about, sang songs about. Water-skiing, cars, small family owned stores, trying to make ends meet, have a few with the buddies – and laughing at the stories they all tell.
You grow up, life moves on. His daughters listen to country… and hip-hop… hard rock… They inspired the joyful “Her Life’s A Song,” a post modern midtempo about iPods and the way music still colors and defines young lives.
But growing up also brings a certain gravitas – and things you’d rather not deal with. For the storybook Jackson, it was his wife Denise being diagnosed with cancer that brought mortality into sharp focus. Like Merle Haggard and “Footlights,” Richard Thompson and “Showman’s Life,” even Jackson Browne with “Love Needs A Heart,” there are songs of reckoning.
“When I Saw You Leaving” is deliberately obscure, not just an elegy that’s not yet final. It could be watching a relationship wither, or the shadow of knowing a child is leaving. But a closer listen makes it clear: this is a song about a slow death.
“I started writing it a week after we found out about it… but I didn’t tell her. I didn’t play it for anyone.
“When I went into the studio to record, that was the first time I really played the song… and it about got me.”
Jackson’s marriage, like his music, is unconventional in how traditional it is. They have been there for each other since. As Jackson says, “We started dating when we were children… I was 17. she was 16.
“I started taking care of her since then. I bought her a car, paid for her college tuition. That was just how you did it.
“And when I heard about the cancer, I felt so helpless. There was nothing I could do. Then I got angry and sad. I’d gladly changed places with her…”
Ahhh, yes, that real cowboy thing that made him so quietly sexy all those years ago. It worked because it wasn’t a pose, or a marketing motif. Alan Jackson is the sort of guy most people want to believe they are…
And like Haggard – or Hank Sr – he’s not afraid of the little details, the fact that boring isn’t what people assume and the way time passes.
“It’s hard for me to have any regrets – or bad feelings,” he confesses.
Indeed, making straight country is nothing to apologize for. He’s making the rounds, visiting radio, being on the frontline and doing things probably an icon shouldn’t for people who may or may not realize how incredible the talent before them is.
In a world of shrinking playlists, surface understanding and minutiae excavating as the polemic norms, maybe there isn’t a place for real modern/traditionalist country. Maybe plastic, synthetic, faux Hallmark hominess and Monster Beverage power-country is all we need.
But listening to a song like the erosion of desire after too many years like “She Don’t Get High” or the recollections of “rabbit tobacco growing on the roadside” in that quick-picking “Dixie Highway,” this is what honesty is made of. Not just looking back to things so vintage they’re only exist as art pieces, nor accepting the brokered, assembly-line kind of music that passes for what’s hot now with no real emotional investment.
If there’s a place in the world for Adele, then certainly Alan Jackson makes sense. Now, more than ever.
“I Wanna Come Back As A Country Song”
Chris Stapleton, Terry McBride
“So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”
Adam Wright, Jay Knowles
“Talk Is Cheap”
Chris Stapleton, Guy Clark, Morganne Hayes
“When I Saw You Leaving (for Nisey)”