Alan Jackson produces hits on his terms

--Courtesy Russ Harrington

BY JOHN BERGER /Star-Advertiser

If there’s a pot of gold at the end of the neon rainbow, Alan Jackson reached it 20 years ago.

Jackson described the life of countless entertainers of all genres with “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” a song he wrote for his first album and then released as a single in 1990. The single peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart; a year or so later Jackson struck gold with a series of hits: “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Dallas,” “Someday,” “Love’s Got a Hold on You” and “Midnight in Montgomery” — the latter a tribute to Hank Williams, who is buried there.

Jackson’s string of hits continued with other songs he wrote, alone or with friends in the music business — “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I Got the Blues),” “Livin’ on Love” and “Chattahoochee,” to name three. He also spoke for many country music fans in 1994 when he recorded “Gone Country.” The lyrics commented on the attitude in other parts of the United States that anyone — Vegas lounge singers, big-city folk rockers and “serious” composers “schooled in voice and composition” — can be overnight successes if they deign to make themselves over and go “country.”

Love songs. Slice-of-life songs. Tribute songs. Issue songs. Jackson has had hits with all of them. And so, when he called on Feb. 16,

a week and a day before his one-nighter in Blaisdell Arena on Sunday, I asked him what makes a song an “Alan Jackson song.”

“I don’t like the real typical lyrics that’s just cliches over and over; I like to find a good hook,” he replied, calling from Florida where he was enjoying the three-day Presidents’ Day weekend aboard his open ocean sport-fishing boat, Hullbilly.

“‘Don’t Rock the Jukebox’ — that’s an unusual title, and it came from a real-life experience. That’s where a lot of the good ones come from. You look for something that’s a little different. Some people pitch me songs that aren’t real hard country like I do, that might be a little more slick when they send me the demo, but a lot of times you can hear through that (slickness) and say, ‘Well that’s just a good song, and I can make it sound like one of my records.’”

It turned out that the boat Jackson was weekending on wasn’t the boat of that name seen in the video version of his 2003 Top 20 crossover hit with Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”

“That one was a few years ago,” he explained. “They’re similar. (This one) is probably a little bigger. I’m always trading.”

The collaboration between Jackson and Buffett — the video includes footage of Jackson performing for an enthusiastic crowd of Parrotheads at a Buffett concert — brought the two superstars together in a song that fit both of them well.

“Everybody in the music business is familiar with Jimmy’s music over the years,” Jackson said. “He and I had a business acquaintance that was the same person, and they kinda introduced us, but we ran into each other the first time over in the Bahamas. I was over there with my fishing boat, and he was over there with his boat. We were at the same little old island. It’s a little scrub island that not very many people go to. … We run into each other and we just hung out. That’s how we got together.”

THE YOUNGEST of five children, born and raised in a small town in Georgia, Jackson loves spending time at sea.

“Sometimes you get far enough away and your cellphone don’t work or anything. It’s quiet and relaxing.

“I did a little bottom fishing (this weekend), caught a snapper and a grouper for dinner,” he said.

“Last time I was (in Hawaii), I took a boat out over on Maui. We were trying to catch a blue marlin. We seen a couple but didn’t get ‘em. It was a little bit rough that day.”

Something that country music shares with Hawaiian music — other than the steel guitar — is respect for the cultural traditions that give the music its foundation.

In the fall of 1999, Jackson and George Strait recorded “Murder on Music Row,” a frank criticism of the proliferation of country-pop fusion acts and what the duo saw as a corresponding rejection of the musical traditions represented by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and George Jones. One of Jackson’s enduring attractions is that his musical choices place him in a line with those senior stars.

“Murder on Music Row” became a hit even through it was never officially released as a single. It also encouraged discussion on the place of “tradition” in country music and the importance of tradition to the music.

Jackson says that he accepts that all forms of music evolve, but at this point in his career, he doesn’t have to compromise.

“I’ve been doing it so long, I’ve seen a lot of ebb and flow in the business and in my career, and I’m just at a point where I’m just really relaxed and happy to be still as current as I am and be able to make the kind of music I want to make,” he said. “We hope radio plays it, (but) if they don’t it doesn’t really hurt my feelings.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed to be able to do it as long as I can, and it’s almost a blessing just to relax and still go make the music I want for my fans. Hopefully it will make an impression out there.”

In that spirit, Jackson will be releasing a second album of gospel music. He did his first, “Precious Memories,” for his mother and with no commercial expectations at all. It sold more than 1.8 million copies.

“People just loved it,” he said. “It’s just been amazing. Finally I got in the studio this winter and made another little gospel album for her. It’s gonna come out about Easter.”