HERE IN THE REAL WORLD: Alan Jackson's End of the Initial Line as Traditionalist Parts w Label that Signed Him

When Alan Jackson signed with Nashville's just launching Arista Records in 1989, he was a quiet man whose shyness underscored his 6' 4" frame and the towering presence he would have as traditional country's most dignified superstar to emerge over the past two decades. If "Blue Blood Woman (Redneck Man)" was the punny opening gambit most labels launch new artists with, his follow-up the spare ache of "Here In The Real World," a brave ballad that merged stroic heartbreak with the truth "Sometimes the cowboy don't always get the girl...," signaled that this was a voice to contend with, an artist who had substance to go with the blond good looks.

 

"Chasing That Neon Rainbow" followed, and "Don't Rock The Jukebox" -- and Alan Jackson never looked back. Reticent, perhaps, but his songs spoke volumes. He headlined tours, racked up #1 hit after #1 hit, won the CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year, multiple multi-platinum albums and always, always maintained the caliber of the music. Whether it was jocular Roger Miller-esque country -- including a redux of the "Dang Me" artist's "Tall, Tall Trees," the plangent "Tonight I Climbed The Walls" or the honky tonk-esque nostalgia of "Chattahoochee," Jackson's country soul, instincts about music  and sense of the life was unparalleled.

 

And in the wake of 9/11, he mused about what had happened with the same incomprehensibility the rest of the nation faced with the hushed "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," admitting "I don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran..." in a lyric that was vulnerable and honest and as paralyzed as the rest of us. He was a voice not of retribution, but humanity -- and that humanity was probably the best thing about America in the aftermath of something still so senseless and horrifying.

 

Voices -- both that solid baritone and the way he writes his songs -- like this come along once, maybe twice in a generation. Hank Williams had it. Certainly Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash, absolutely, and though not quite the singer Kris Kristofferson. In her own way, Dolly Parton fits the bill -- and far more than people realize Tammy Wynette, perhaps Rosanne Cash.

 

Yesterday, Arista Records announced their parting with Alan Jackson. It was a mutually issued statement. It could quite well have been Jackson's decision not to re-sign with the label that has been his home for two decades, the need for fresh energy, new blood... Or it could be that superstar deals in this new age have become unsustainable for artists who aren't doing triple platinum any more.

 

It's a lot like when Columbia Records let Johnny Cash go. A luxury they couldn't afford, a legacy they couldn't maintain. What it meant -- beyond the bottomline -- spoke volumes about what was valued on Music Row. Not just the flagging sales -- remember the fans weren't buying those records, either -- but the way stagnation creeps in, important acts become furniture in the quest for the new sensation.

 

Alan Jackson, a skinny kid who liked cars from Newnan, Georgia who'd delivered mail at The Nashville Network and eschewed the spotlight in a way that truly kept the focus on the music, spoke volumes about life beyond the city limits. Not in a big bombastic pump up the jams and the 4-wheel way, but more the high times that could be had on a river, a backroad or a slow dance.

 

Whether it was the generational passage of "Drive (For Daddy Gene)," pride in family business that grounded "Small Town Southern Man" or the wry juxtaposed commentary of "Where I Come From," there was basic reality that touched the way real people lived their lives. Even the biting indictment of pop music carpetbaggers of "Gone Country" was softened by Jackson's wit and equanimity.

 

He was a champion of other artists and lost jukebox: Charley McClain's #1 "Who's Cheatin' Who," Eddie Cochran's "Mercury Blues" and Don Williams' "It Must Be Love," as well as Kieran Kane's half-spoken "I'll Go On Loving You" and the r&b-injected  sultriness of "She's Got the Rhythm (& I've Got The Blues" co-written with the original post-modern traditionalist Randy Travis.

 

Jackson, with fellow gentleman troubadour George Strait, did record the indicting "Murder on Music Row" to call attention to what was going on. More than a single, it was a cautionary knell -- and one that should give is pause. Is this really how the genre should face the challenge of eroding record sales and a loss of identity?

 

Yesterday, Alan Jackson left the only musical home he's ever had -- a place where he blazed trails, kicked up the dust and created a kind of country music that is a true testament to the genre's essence. Given his seemingly bottomless ability to reignite classic country music, this isn't over. Unless Jackson has had enough.

 

But for a genre that stands at the crossroads of lame 80s pop and a bulked up hybrid of hair metal and Southern rock lite, it makes one wonder. When Cash was let go, there was a fire in the belly of the genre: Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam were potent factors, Merle Haggard was still on the charts and Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Reba McEntire were all doing fairly hard takes on bluegrass, Texas and swing/hard country respectively.

 

Now there is none of that. With the exception of Jamey Johnson, kept as much for the Rebel Jim freak factor as his songwriting brilliance, it is a sanitized for your protection, Ken'N'Barbie proposition down on Music Row, a place where a young artist a la Alan Jackson might now not be able to find a home. After all, what would you do with someone like that? And what does it say about all those years of consistent hits, always drawing on aspects of one of America's most once upon a time most singular genres?

 

It makes me wonder... and it makes me think... and especially it makes me wanna reach out.

 

After all, I can't be alone in this. Missing what Alan Jackson meant, not wanting him to become a superstar emeritus, nor willing to believe that he's tapped out as a creative force. Watching the increasingly pop bankruptcy -- no one mentions that the biggest country sellers of the year Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum had not just the crossover exposure (making them legit pop acts), but the versions of their songs that went to CHR radio bore little resemblance to the versions country radio -- is it a matter of the powers that be no longer know or understand the difference, don't like that kind of country or that the new stars don't understand why Alan Jackson's music connects, so don't aspire to that?

 

Hard to say, yet, it's something someone needs to point out. After all, if you don't identify the reality, how do you begin deciding if it's truly worth walking away from? Because Jackson's legacy -- beyond the music, which is terrifyingly validated in his Hank Sr. graveside single "Midnight in Montgomery" -- should be as much how the genre moves forward. Maybe this is how the discussion begins...

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Tags: Alan, George, Here, In, Jackson, Jamey, Johnson, Music, REal, Row, More…Strait, The, World, a, country, deal, death, end, genre, music, of, record

Comment by Holly Gleason on January 21, 2011 at 10:08am

-- and it must have been impossibly hard on Sony Nashville head Gary Overton,

who managed Jackson for several years, is a decent man and who knows the difference!

Nothing is simple and clean cut, but some things must punch through...

WHAT this MEANS to the MUSIC, especially the quality of the songs, is CRITICAL.

please discuss --

 

Comment by Nathan Bell on January 21, 2011 at 3:50pm
Here we go again, country dressed up as bad 70's rock, country made into a kind of lesser ability punk folk, country made into anything but country...great freaking piece.
Comment by Adam Sheets on January 22, 2011 at 6:37am
I predicted a few months back that Jamey Johnson's time will be up in Nashville soon due to his refusal to sell out. You've all seen it before- Dwight Yoakam  and Marty Stuart get marginalized, Hank III had a laundry list of problems to deal with at his label, the Dixie Chicks get blacklisted, etc. It seems that it always happens, though, to the artists who try to maintain something close to a traditional sound and this is just the latest in a long line of misdeeds. George Strait is the next to fall and then Jamey Johnson goes the way of Steve Earle. And five years from now, even Brad Paisley may be thrown out of town for being too traditional.
Comment by Janice Brooks on January 22, 2011 at 8:05am
22 years is an amazing run particuarly the way things have changed in the business. I remember being excited about finding the first cd, my one Jackson show where Wade Hayes opened in 1996 and relating to his line about finding anything to watch on TV during 911. Sad to think nobody could replace that these days but I do my best to support those with the hope.
Comment by Dan McGehee on January 22, 2011 at 10:07am
Nash Vegas Pop Fecal Matter has not mattered in 15 years. Little or no significant material has come from Nashville major record companies in years with the exception of Allan Jackson, Vince Gill and Marty Stewart since the Dixie Chicks were black listed for speaking the truth. There is great country music there, see Buddy Miller and Kieran Kane, but it is never played on country radio.  Johnny Cash's billboard stated quite clearly the true nature of commercial country(?) radio  and the country(?) recording  industry.  I wish all the commercial country radio stations would switch to the Amerciana format so we the people could again hear true artistic creativity over the airwaves.
Comment by TwangNation.com on January 22, 2011 at 8:54pm

Excellent piece. Like Cash, Haggard and Wagoner , a 16 year-old just starting out is in the same uncertain path if  they don't fit the tightly controlled brand of Nashville country music. I would add Miranda Lambert in with the an artist following her heart that, because of her success, is tolerated by Nashville.

Comment by Banner Kidd on January 23, 2011 at 5:58am
Here's to Alan Jackson being a huge Indie artist, keeping the soul of country music alive. Fergit the labels canning artists.... Let the real artists can the labels......  Country Music, as all honest music genres is grass roots.... Let's get back to the roots and make good honest music that tells the story of life.
Comment by Easy Ed on January 24, 2011 at 7:58am
It's sort of surprising that he hung on this long but the suits were probably too busy working on their 401Ks to notice him. There's some new, younger suits in town these days and they'll be cleaning house left and right. When Universal with their huge number one market share drops 62 employees last week citing that ol' "tough economic condition" boogie, label thinning isn't far behind. Alan might end up an indie artist or he might become an oldies act for the casinos. Either way, he'll be fine.
Comment by Kyla Fairchild on January 24, 2011 at 10:41am

Nice post Holly, thanks! 

 

Scott Edward Phelps wrote an associated blog on the topic,  "Alan Jackson As Nostradamus-A Brief Essay on Shelf Life and Inevit... so I want to link to it here in the comments so anyone who's interested can also  check that out. 

Comment by Shane on January 24, 2011 at 11:57am
Don't get me started!!!  Great piece Holly

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.