Sunday, 20 July, 2008 11:05 PM
Alan Jackson: The Art of Matching Truth to a
by Russ Harrington
Nashville recording artist Alan Jackson.
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
"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
"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
"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
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by Russ Harrington
Jackson in Nashville, Tenn.
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