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Sunday, 20 July, 2008 11:05 PM

Alan Jackson: The Art of Matching Truth to a Good Tune

Photo by Russ Harrington

Arista Nashville recording artist Alan Jackson.

By Tom Roland
© 2008 CMA Close Up News Service

A sweeping dichotomy surfaces at the close of Alan Jackson's latest album, Good Time. "If You Want to Make Me Happy," the penultimate track, is set in a barroom awash in jukebox laments and mind-numbing alcohol. The closer, "If Jesus Walked the World Today," is a buoyant gospel piece that contemplates Jesus' appearance and behavior were he to re-emerge in 21st-century America. These two songs juxtapose the polar themes of Country Music: the Saturday-night sinner and the Sunday-morning saint.

So how does Jackson feel about this?

"I never think about that kind of stuff until you writers bring it up," he said.

That's one reason why Jackson, who has branded himself in a lyric as "just a singer of simple songs," remains a force nearly two decades after signing his first recording contract with Arista Nashville. Like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams before him, Jackson addresses blue-collar themes in easy-to-grasp language while tackling ideas that slip beneath surface concerns to the root of human existence. These ideas are so obvious to him that he doesn't waste any time thinking about the depth of his observations.

"No matter what he's done," said Joe Galante, Chairman, Sony BMG Nashville, "whether it???s been 'Chattahoochee' or 'Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),' you have this conversation with him about 'these brilliant lyrics - where did this come from?' 'I don't know.' 'And this theme you have in this album?' 'No, I just think they're good songs.' 'OK, so do we.' I really think it's just about what the muse is at the moment, and then it moves him to go there. "That muse is geared strongly to the issues and concerns that face the average heartland Joe because Jackson, despite the money and fame he's amassed, is still one of them.

"Part of the reason is obviously because of where he comes from - his family ties, his family roots back in Newnan [Ga.], plus being surrounded by Denise and his three daughters," suggested Keith Stegall, producer of Good Time and all but one of Jackson's other albums. "They manage to have a pretty normal, down-to-earth lifestyle."

Good Time reiterates this fact. It embraces the escape that most people long for in the island-themed "Laid Back 'n Low Key (Cay)." It infuses his mechanical background into the truck setting of "Country Boy." It faces death in the questioning of "Sissy's Song." It looks at love in the romantic "Right Where I Want You" and, in a humorous take on the wake of making love, "Nothing Left to Do." And it leans heavily on nostalgia with "I Wish I Could Back Up," "1976" and "I Still Like Bologna," in which Jackson accepts digital technology and wheat bread while maintaining his appreciation for a previous era.

"You look at all the different ways that life has changed - the Internet, satellite TV, cell phones," he said. "It's hard to come to grips with all of it sometimes. But I wrote the song to show that I'm OK with where things are, even though it's not so bad the way things were, either. I eat healthier than I used to - I usually have wheat bread on my sandwiches - but I still like bologna on white bread. That's why I used that title. It's kind of nice once in a while to do things the old way. That doesn't mean it's better - just means it's nice to do it that way."

Jackson's album is in some ways a return to his old way of doing things. In contrast, his two previous albums were departures from his usual output. Like Red on a Rose marked the only time that he had recorded with a producer other than Stegall. With Alison Krauss at the console, it put a more fragile spin and cast darker textures on his music. And Precious Memories was a gospel album that hinged on classic hymns, recorded primarily as a gift to his mother.

Shaking up the routine proved a good way to invigorate everyone involved in the recording process for Good Time. "Going back to this album, there was a renewed energy," Jackson noted. "I had it, and I could tell Keith was excited to be back at it. The musicians even seemed more inspired, or energetic, than usual. That's not to say that they're not always right there, but they seemed happy to get back to playing some traditional Country Music, or at least my style of that."

"It seemed like everybody was just rarin' to go," said session musician Bruce Watkins, who played acoustic guitar and banjo on Good Time and has played regularly on Jackson's albums since 1989. "Being reunited as the team that originally played on all the hits that he had, everybody got all this adrenaline going, and I could see it in the smile on Alan's face too."

Jackson was definitely enthused. He typically puts off writing most of his new material until an album deadline approaches. That was the case with Good Time too, but when he put pen to paper, the songs fell out with unusual ease. In the end, Jackson recorded more than 20 songs and ultimately included 17 on his 17th album, Good Time. And for the first time in his career, he wrote them all - without a co-writer.

Some of his inspiration may have come from feeling he had something to prove. The two previous albums, according to Galante, "threw people for a loop. They went, 'I'm not sure about this. Is Alan not making records anymore?' All the crap that you would expect to show up showed up. It wasn't a surprise, but it lingered a little bit longer than I expected. I think it put a little more pressure on him on this record to come back and deliver what he did deliver."

Since making his debut album in 1989 with Here in the Real World, Jackson has delivered with extreme consistency. He's weathered several stylistic periods within Country Music, all the while remaining true to his roots. According to Galante, he still plays music by The Carter Family and Vern Gosdin on his bus, confirmation that while other acts reflect more current and pop-oriented influences, Jackson continues to be moved by the historic and honky-tonk sounds on which Country Music was built.

"We just did a series of focus groups," Galante said. "We were talking about Alan Jackson. They were all women we were talking to, and we said, 'What comes to your mind when you think about Alan Jackson?' And the words came up: 'classic' and 'timeless.' That's what it is. They get the sense this man stands for something. He has a great sense of humor, and he has a great heart and soul, and they get it. He doesn't have to come out and talk about it. They get it just because of the way he approaches everything."

Jackson's approach is why he's taken aback at time by efforts to analyze his music. The three-time CMA Entertainer of the Year applies the same integrity represented in "Small Town Southern Man" to his own work, which is built on observations about the people and the world around him. The depth is there in his writing, but it rises from a multitude of simple images that he's pieced together.

"When I was making this record," he mused, "I was thinking all these songs and the sounds on there are pretty much like I wanted to do when I came to Nashville. It was the same thing, Country Music and songs of this nature, and so I still enjoy creating the music, for the most part, more than the rest of my career. I get tired of the interviews and the TV and the awards stuff and all that, but I still like making the music."

On the Web: www.alanjackson.com

 

Photo by Russ Harrington

Alan Jackson in Nashville, Tenn.

 

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