After Travis Tritt brought out an album this month, his fellow member of the Class of ’89 (which also counts Clint Black and Garth Brooks as members) Alan Jackson has done so. Randy Travis arrived at the head of the ‘neo-traditionalists’ who brought back whatever the Nashville record labels thought they were bringing back. It was a marketing tool to convince people that these guys were worth listening to. Alan has quietly become the man who keeps the trad flame alive, and at 62 only works when he needs to work. Bob Harris tells the story that at the CMA Awards he dangled a mic in front of him asking Alan if he had any messages for his UK fans. Alan virtually spat in Bob’s face.
Among Alan’s 26 number ones are Don’t Rock the Jukebox and Chattachoochee, both enormous smashes of the early 1990s, and It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, the beach jam which got to number 17 on the Hot 100 and ruled 2003. He had number ones aplenty in the 1990s and 2000s, including the 9/11 catharsis of award-munching Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) though make time for the Phil Vassar song Right On The Money, a 1998 number one, and the Zac Brown Band duet As She’s Walking Away. In 2017, he followed Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Reba, Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His citation noted that his songs ‘are marked by humility, humour and eloquent simplicity’.
Where Have You Gone was launched with a slew of pre-released nuggets including a title track which pointedly asks where country music traditionalism has gone. Things That Matter sounds like a Song of the Year from 1995, with some gentle fiddle providing some harmonic counterpoint. Alan is a man who uses twang and heartfelt lyrics, which in the 1990s were country’s main sonic signposts, as they had been in Alan’s childhood growing up in Georgia in the era of Chet Atkins’ Nashville Sound.
Several songs were written for members of his family: You’ll Always Be My Baby and I Do address his daughters, the latter sounding like a first dance; the hymnal Where Her Heart Has Always Been is a memorial for Alan’s mum which could also work as an a cappella song; since his last album, Merle Haggard has passed away and so Alan dedicates That’s The Way Love Goes to him. Check out the glorious chorus which has Alan sing that old music ‘is never old but grows’.
Back begins with ‘tomatoes on the vine, elderberry wine’ and sounds like one of those fun songs in the neo-traditional movement. Accordingly, Alan is ‘bringing country back’ with a song that reminds me of Good Time, which contains tons of verses and tons of fiddle and twang. Beer:10 is similarly raucous, sounding like a Brad Paisley happy song amid the many about love and stuff. It also has the best fiddle solo on the album by Alan’s longtime touring violinist Ryan Joseph.
Conversely, Alan sounds stark and lonesome on Way Down in my Whiskey, a mood matched by the arrangement and produced by longtime collaborator Keith Stegall, who doesn’t change the formula that made Alan a superstar in the 1990s. Ditto I Was Tequila (‘she was champagne’) and on another track he is Livin on Empty. Yep, he used to be Livin on Love now he’s ‘lovin’ on fumes’.
The songtitles on the album sound like classic Alan Jackson titles: Where The Cottonwood Grows, I Can Be That Something, Write It In Red (‘Take out your lipstick’ he tells a woman on the point of leaving), Wishful Drinkin’, These songs are all of the highest quality, with traditional country instrumentation (including plenty of fiddle) and Alan’s legendary Hall of Fame voice.
The Boot and This Heart of Mine are both written by Alan’s nephew and songwriter Adam Wright. The former is set in a bar and takes the form of a guy opening his heart to the narrator. The harmonies create a depth in the arrangement that match the song’s emotion of simplicity. As for the latter, it’s as country as the day is long, a description of the narrator’s heart, battered and bruised but still able to be repaired. On the other hand, on Alan’s song Chain, he won’t ‘free my heart and break the chain…Though it hurts I can’t let go’. Well that’s one way of declaring universal love…
So Late So Soon was written by the great Daniel Tashian, among others, and his lush knowledge of melody (he recently worked with Burt Bacharach!) is a perfect fit for a country croon. I listened to it immediately after it finished, to savour the song which is very much a Chateaubriand. Ditto A Man Who Never Cries, which sees Alan look back on his wonderful life, full of ‘happy tears’ though he rarely shows emotion. His fans from 1991 will lap this up. The album closes with The Older I Get, about the importance of friendship and ‘when to just not give a damn’ about things. It was written by nephew Adam Wright and the brilliant Hayley Whitters, who might well join Alan on tour should the opportunity arise. I’d go.
I hope new fans are converted but everyone knows Alan, the guy who didn’t want the jukebox rocked and who learned a little about love down in Chattahoochee. The industry knows that along with Garth (who was more of a pan-American phenomenon), Alan defined what country music sounded like in the neo-traditional era before Shania and the Chicks. Like those three acts in that last sentence, and like Reba too, Alan is a legacy act who will always be praised even as young pretenders bring their programmed drums and hiphop cadences. Country music has many forms; many people prefer the one Alan Jackson offers.