Still country, still a stellar songwriter
April 18, 2019
Alan Jackson has had no problem settling into the role of country music’s mentor-in-chief. Nearly 30 years after the release of his debut album, he’s as true to the spirit of real country music as he was when he was a younger man, and he’s also dedicated to using his extraordinary career experience to raise up a new generation of country musicians.
A man of few spoken words, Jackson expresses himself through his songs, and he hopes that, over the decades, that’s been good enough.
Songwriting to make a difference
“I’d like to think that my songwriting made a difference,” he said. “I’ve had so many people tell me that my songs are the reason they moved to Nashville. I’ve heard that so many times, and it makes me feel good that I’ve inspired somebody.”
Has he made a difference? The statistics say, emphatically, that he has. He’s released 16 studio albums, two greatest hits collections, a couple of Christmas albums, and assorted other compilations. He’s sold more than 80 million records overall, and 15 of his albums have been certified multi-platinum. He’s put more than five dozen songs on Billboard’s country chart; 35 of those songs have reached number one, and 38 have made it into the top five. He’s taken home two Grammys, 16 CMAs, and 17 ACM Awards. He’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Jackson has always been a traditionalist, sometimes intentionally and sometimes seemingly unconsciously, because that’s just who he is. The former shows up on songs like “Jim and Jack and Hank,” a track from his most recent album, Angels and Alcohol. The song plays on the venerable country theme of finding solace in the bottle.
“The girl leaves the guy, and this time he’s not going to be heartbroken,” Jackson said of the song’s story. “He says, ‘Just go out the door and take all your junk and everything. I don’t need anything. I got all I need. I got my friends Jim, Jack, and Hank — Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and Hank Williams, Senior or Junior or both.’”
But while that idea has a long history in country music, Jackson more often than not balances it with something more introspective and mature, as on the album’s title track.
Taking a grown-up approach
“I don’t know where I got ‘Angels and Alcohol,’” he says. “At first, I thought it sounded like an album title more than anything, and I just had it laying there. One day, I sat down and tried to write it, and it just came out. It’s about alcohol abuse and how it affects your whole life and relationships and dealing with your own problems. It’s just hard to do anything when that has an effect on you.”
The ability to look at life from the perspective of a grown-up with a gentle soul has consistently been a hallmark of Jackson’s music.
One of the biggest hits of his career, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), was an unashamedly humble reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a take on the events that was a little out of step with the tenor of the moment. While some other country stars were writing defiant, angry calls for war, Jackson instead was offering compassion. It was, perhaps, the defining moment for his legacy.
That’s what he’s always been about: balancing life’s good and bad, writing songs about the ups and downs, staying true to country traditions, and working hard. The strategy has been immensely successful for him, and he’s been determined to share his success with new artists.
One way he’s done so was by opening AJ’s Good Time Bar, a sprawling honky tonk on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, in 2016. The 6,000-square-foot place has become one of the top-rated honky tonks in Music City and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
The bar’s popularity presents an opportunity to showcase new talent, and Jackson has taken advantage of it by bringing in some Nashville’s most promising new artists to play for the throngs of tourists that visit AJ’s.
Jackson has a long tradition of nurturing newcomers, having brought previously unknown (but soon-to-be-superstar) performers like Brad Paisley and LeAnn Rimes on tour with him over the years.
For his 2019 tour, he’s going all out with the mentorship, both giving the tour’s opening slots to promising young stars (William Michael Morgan will open the Fort Wayne show) and giving a spotlight on the big stage to some of AJ’s most popular performers at each show.
Through it all, Jackson continues to do what he does. He only wants to keep it country, and he has no interest in changing. When he looks back at his 1990 debut album, he sees the same singer he’s always been and still is, and that’s just fine with him.
“My voice was a lot higher back then,” he says. “My voice has gotten deeper with age, but other than that there probably isn’t much difference, and I’m proud of that.”