By Chrissie Dickinson, Special to the Chicago Tribune
November 20, 2010
Alan Jackson laughs quietly. "I got songs that are older than some of the kids out there in my audience," says the country superstar, his Georgia drawl coming out over the telephone line.
To celebrate his two decades in the majors, Jackson, 52, releases "34 Number Ones" (Arista Nashville) on Monday. The two-CD set includes all of his chart-topping hits, as well as his take on the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire" and "As She's Walking Away," a hit by the Zac Brown Band that features Jackson.
Other than George Strait, who has 10 years on Jackson as a major-label artist, no country artist in the modern era has maintained such longevity as both a commercial and critical force. "34 Number Ones" is an excellent primer on why the man matters.
It's a moving trip down memory lane. There are the chopped, old-time fiddle notes that kick off his debut single "Here in the Real World." "Drive (For Daddy Gene)" is an homage to his late father. "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" captures the stunned reaction to 9/11. "Remember When" is an autumnal look back at a long marriage.
"I Don't Even Know Your Name" is a witty wordplay on a country bumpkin who gets drunk and wakes up married to a waitress ("I'm in love with you baby / I don't even know your name / I've never been too good at all those sexual games"). But it's also a combination of the electrified Bakersfield sound that morphs into a western swing workout with astonishing passages of pedal steel, fiddle and acoustic and electric guitar.
Listening to this collection of Jackson's work reminds one why he's now increasingly revered as one of the classic artists of country music, regardless of period.
"It's important to note that as consistent as he is, his music sweeps across a wide range, and he brings in Cajun, honky-tonk, bluegrass, swing, gospel, blues and simple singer-songwriter styles into what he does," says Michael McCall, a writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "That he does all this yet always sounds wholly like himself puts him in a rare category of someone like Merle Haggard. He embraces such a wide swath of music yet makes it all his own."
Jackson's unswerving integrity over the years is best appreciated in the context of the time he emerged. In the early 1990s, Garth Brooks had ushered country music to the top of the Billboard pop charts. Brooks' shows were arena-rock affairs, filled with flashy pyrotechnics that found the superstar flying in on a rope wearing a wireless headset mic.
Jackson made use of video screens in concert, but otherwise kept his show tightly focused on his stellar road band, the Strayhorns, and himself as the frontman who ambled in, walked up to a stationary microphone and sang his songs the old-fashioned way.
Jackson looked to artists who came before him as guideposts. "George Jones. Merle Haggard. Even George Strait, who'd already been out 10 years by the time I came along. They just walked out and sang.
"There's just something cool about that."
The past also shaped Jackson as a songwriter. He's written or co-written the bulk of his material. When he has taken on a cover, he's chosen work from the most respected names in the business: Tom T. Hall, George Jones, Roger Miller, Bob McDill.
Jackson took McDill's scathing "Gone Country" to No. 1 in 1994. A biting commentary on the pop music carpetbaggers who flooded Nashville during the Garth-fueled boom years, it sounds as fresh and bold today as it did back then. The verses track the stories of three interlopers — an aging Vegas showgirl, a washed-up New York City folkie and a slick LA music pro — who smell money in a move to Music City.
"I just remember everybody was so scared about me recording ('Gone Country'), that we might get negative reaction from the music industry and radio," Jackson recalls.
"(But) I loved it. I really did. In those days, it was just truth."
When it comes to a self-assessment of his own work, Jackson remains a low-key superstar who's never got above his raising.
"Family songs, drinkin' songs, hurtin' songs, dyin' songs, almost religious songs, workin' man songs," he says quietly. "All that stuff is what makes country music to me."
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