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...