Everything changes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fight the tide. That’s what Alan Jackson has done since the 1990s, finding massive success as a songwriter who refuses to let old-school country music die out. Jackson is considered the father of “neotraditional country,” but he was just holding onto the country music he grew up with, and his campaign against the soaking of country with pop sounds and techniques hit all the right notes for a lot of people.
Born in 1958 near Atlanta, Georgia, Jackson loved gospel music and the classic country style of George Jones and Loretta Lynn while also embracing the next generation’s sounds from Hank Williams, Jr. and John David Anderson. He moved to Nashville in his late 20s, and a few years later became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He has collaborated closely with George Strait and fellow neotraditional artist Randy Travis. “Keep it Country” has long been his semi-official slogan.
Jackson made his solo debut in 1990 for Arista Records, the first of nearly two dozen albums he’s recorded so far. Here in the Real World took off with a bang, gaining him his first No. 1 hit, “I’d Love You All Over Again.”
Among the album’s strengths are its session musicians, Nashville nobility like upright bassist Roy Husky, Jr., pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and steel guitarist Paul Franklin. Another selling point was Jackson’s original songs, each in its way a tribute to the classic country he loved. And then there’s his voice and delivery, a clear tenor with a detailed control of dynamics and phrasing unusual for his genre. A good example is “Dog River Blues.”
“Chattahoochee” and “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I Got the Blues)” were the two most successful of the five hit singles from A Lot About Livin’ (and a Little ʼbout Love), released in 1992. The album itself reached the top of the country charts. Its title song was Jackson’s first of several songwriting collaborations with Randy Travis.
Besides writing over half the album himself, Jackson picked a few numbers by colleagues. Among those is “She Likes It Too,” by Zach Turner and Tim Nichols. It’s one of those country songs about…country songs. These days we’d call it “meta,” but the trope has been around for ages.
By this point, it seemed Jackson could not take a wrong step. Four of the singles from his 1994 album Who I Am topped the charts. It’s significant that two of the hits from Everything I Love (1996) were covers of classic country tunes from two previous generations: Tom T. Hall’s “Little Bitty” and Charly McClain’s “Who’s Cheatin’ Who.” Jackson had his audience right where he wanted them, appreciating his forebears.
Also from Everything I Love is “Walk on the Rocks” by John E. Swaim, who doesn’t seem to have written a lot, although there are two songs by him on a Clinton Kyle album. Pig Robbins’ barroom piano sound and Stuart Duncan’s mournful fiddle line are the ideal heartbreaking touches to this father-son ballad.
On Under the Influence (1999), Jackson doubled down on his commitment to the neotraditionalist creed, creating a whole album of covers from decades past. In the wrong hands this could have been career suicide – pop music had never been more prevalent in country than it was that year, thanks to the likes of Tim McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill. But Jackson’s fans loved what he loved, country’s roots; Under the Influence did extremely well for a cover album.
The veterans being paid homage to include Nat Stuckey, Crystal Gayle, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, and Don Williams. Merle Haggard is represented by a couple of songs: “My Own Kind of Hat” (written by Haggard) and “The Way I Am” (by Sonny Throckmorton).
A song in response to 9/11, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” became Jackson’s biggest hit. It was included on the 2002 album Drive, whose title song also hit No. 1.
Although Drive was produced by Keith Stegall, whom he’d worked with many times before, the album finds Jackson allowing in more pop-music sounds than he had in the past. But he can hardly be said to have abandoned country traditions; he just blends them with an updated sensibility. “Bring on the Night,” with its delicate mandolin counterpoint by Stuart Duncan, is a good illustration.
Jackson explored the jazz-tinged smoothness of adult contemporary rock and the coziness of neo-folk on 2006’s Like a Red Rose. He asked fiddler/singer Allison Krauss to both produce it and choose which songs to include. Only one of them was by Jackson, “A Woman’s Love,” a new arrangement of a track he had recorded 15 years before.
Krauss’ choices must have been quite challenging for Jackson to sing. The styles represented are well out of his wheelhouse. He does an admirable job by not trying to be something he’s not, but rather lets the songs themselves and the expert musicians around him carry the stylistic burden.
It’s partly thanks to acoustic guitarist Ron Block, who seems to be channeling Cat Stevens, that “The Firefly’s Song” is so solid.
As if as a counterbalance to Like a Red Rose, Jackson delved into pre-country styles for The Bluegrass Album (2013). In typical fashion, he brought in a great support team, this time featuring fiddler Tim Crouch, banjo player Sammy Shelor, and dobro player Rob Ickes. (There’s something delightful in the fact that this album was mastered by a man named Hank Williams; no relation, of course, although he once mastered a Hank Williams, Jr. recording.)
Rather than make his first bluegrass album a collection of covers, as one might expect, Jackson wrote half of the tracks himself. He does not try to imitate the greats like Bill Monroe (whose “Blue Moon of Kentucky” closes the album). Jackson’s “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” demonstrates his distinctive amalgam of neotrad country and the textures and harmonies of bluegrass.
Jackson’s most recent album is Where Have You Gone, released in 2021. It’s nostalgic and bittersweet, harking back to the sounds of his early records. There is, unfortunately, a reason he might be feeling particularly nostalgic about his past. For many years, Jackson has battled an incurable neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, a fact that he announced publicly in 2021 when he released this latest record. Although CMT is not fatal, it is progressive and has started to affect his ability to play and tour. He’s not calling it quits yet, though, declaring to the press, “I’ll try to do as much as I can.”
Whatever he does, you know he’ll be keeping it country.
Header image: Alan Jackson publicity photo, courtesy of UMG Nashville.com.