Earlier this week, Nashville’s iconic Station Inn was taken over by Alan Jackson and his people for two days of rehearsals, sound checks, and video shoots, followed by a concert Tuesday night. The focus was his upcoming September release, titled simply The Bluegrass Album, which finds the lauded country singer performing with a bluegrass rhythm section for the first time.
And not just any rhythm section. Long-time Jackson producer Keith Stegall and regular guitarist Scott Coney put together a group drawn from some of the top pickers and singers in bluegrass, and invited them to track with Jackson in Nashville this past Spring. Coney handled guitar, with Sammy Shelor on banjo, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Tim Crouch on fiddle, Rob Ickes on reso-guitar, and Tim Dishman on bass. Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby were brought in to provide harmony vocals. All are celebrated artists in their own rights, and were happy to participate in the sessions.
Jackson was so pleased with the results that he invited all of them back for the August 27 show at the Station Inn, which was broadcast worldwide on WSM and WSM online. And he’ll take them along on a number of live appearances in support of the album, starting with a Carnegie Hall show on October 28. Though nothing has yet been announced, a number of national television guest spots are anticipated, as well as some major festival shows.
We spoke yesterday with Adam Steffey, following Tuesday night’s show, and he shared his thoughts about the experience in Nashville.
“It was large… a bunch of fun. We rehearsed all day Monday, and again on Tuesday morning. In the afternoon we shot two videos at the Station. But when the crowd got in there, it was great. The show had that live feel – just like the record. This was our first time all together since we cut the album, and we couldn’t have been treated any better. Alan’s a great guy – very kind – and he really took care of all of us. All his people, all his crew, were first class.”
Adam said they shot live performance video for both Blacktop, with which they closed the show Tuesday night, and Blue Ridge Mountain Song. Both are Jackson originals, and both will be made into music videos for wide distribution this Fall. Additional lighting was installed on the the Station Inn stage to accommodate the filming. We presume that additional footage of Jackson will be shot and combined with this live video to create the finished product.
Blacktop is a clever song, very much of the sort that has seen Jackson score 35 #1 hits, with a simple melody and a relatable story that can hit home with a lot of country music fans. This one is a response to the many recent country songs that talk about the glories of living on a dirt road, something that Alan actually did growing up. His story tells how overjoyed everyone was when their road was finally paved (“I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes”), set to a driving bluegrass beat.
One point Steffey returned to repeatedly in our discussion was the fact that Jackson and his entire apparatus (label, promotion staff, etc) are fully committed to The Bluegrass Album, and that it would publicized and distributed as aggressively as any project he has done.
“He is really into this record – he just really wanted to do it. It’s as important to him as anything he’s ever done. Scott Coney says that Alan’s really jacked about it all, and loves the album. And he wants to enter the bluegrass world the right way, not step on any toes. Alan has a lot of respect for bluegrass music. He listens to Sirius Xm all the time on his bus. He told us in the studio that it’s almost all he listens to, Bluegrass Junction and the classic country channel. When I first saw him at the Station on Tuesday morning he said, “I heard you on XM driving over here.”
That would have been Adam’s current CD, New Primitive, recently released on Mountain Home.
Steffey also mentioned how impressed he was with the fact that Jackson chose the home of bluegrass in Nashville to introduce the new record, a venue that leaves much to be desired as compared to the giant arenas and high tech studios where he is more commonly found.
“I have to give him kudos for doing it like that. Before it’s even released, to do the whole album live and broadcast it worldwide took a lot of guts. And without any experience playing with a bluegrass band.”
And he was clear in his expectation that The Bluegrass Album will be well-received in the bluegrass world.
“I know that we have people in our music who are superstars at being annoyed by anything different, but I think bluegrass fans will really like it.
If any of the songs can break onto country radio, it can only help everybody.
I’m sort of like the Archie Bunker of bluegrass myself – old, jaded, and cynical about everything. But it was neat to be genuinely surprised by someone as real as Alan Jackson – there’s no cheese about him, nothing fake at all.”
In conclusion, Adam said that recording and performing with Jackson gave him a chance to see how the big dogs roll, not unlike his time touring with the Dixie Chicks several years ago.
“It’s the other side of life… like winning something on Wheel Of Fortune. You won a trip to Acapulco!”
Let’s hope there will be many more chances for Steffey, and all the bluegrass pickers on The Bluegrass Album, to be treated like stars.