Alan Jackson's Bluegrass as Good on Broadway as Backwoods


Sunday November 3, 2013 11:12 PM By Josh Stewart for Long Island Newsday

Before singing “Blue Side of Heaven” at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 28, Alan Jackson recalled the irony of working on the tear-jerker when he was summoned to the deathbed of George Jones, who passed away last April.

“That’s a tough one to sing,” Jackson said after the rendition. “But it’s sweet.”

And there you have Jackson’s career in one quote. The Possum’s tortured brilliance aside, Jackson’s soothing Georgia drawl provides his fans a much safer -- often hope-filled -- place to ponder life’s travails.

Considering how he’s churned emotions via classic country recordings, a live audience mixed with the ultimate platform for homespun heartbreak -- bluegrass -- is far from a stretch.

Jackson has taken time off in the past from fighting Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney for radio acreage to pursue more personal concept projects -- in 2006 he released both hymnal collection “Precious Memories” and blues-inspired album “Like Red on a Rose.”

But calling his Sept. 24 release “The Bluegrass Album” a concept album would be selling it short. It may be a bucket-list labor of love for Jackson, but it’s also an extension of what made Jackson beloved in the first place. And it helps explains how he deftly managed to turn Carnegie Hall into a place where the guy in the backwards Bass Pro Shops hat didn’t seem quite so out of place.

Between songs Jackson talked about his own indoctrination to unusual settings -- coming to the Big Apple for a label appearance and ending up on stage with The Four Tops pretending he knew what they were singing.

“I had two ‘Tops’ under this arm, and two ‘Tops’ under that arm,” Jackson remembered to roaring laughs.

But a minute later Jackson and his eight-man accompaniment had those same fans fighting much different emotions during “Blue Ridge Mountain Song.” Ostensibly it’s the same message of simple lifetime romance that made his “Livin’ on Love” a classic. But while in “Love” the couple faces mortality together -- “hand in hand we’ll walk through that door” -- “Mountain Song” takes you on a similar journey only to jar you with a husband alone and lost after his wife passes.

Jackson explained to the audience it’s “hard to write a happy song without it sounding goofy.” Maybe that’s why a guy who sings such poignant tunes is such a cut-up between songs.

When Jackson’s nephew, Adam Wright -- who also co-produced the album -- came out to join the band for “Ain’t Got Trouble Now,” Jackson ironically got in his only trouble of the night for mentioning that Wright’s beard made him look like one of the Red Sox.

Jackson made up for the jab later by bringing out surprise guest Lee Ann Womack -- a co-host on New York country station NASH-FM’s morning show -- for a rendition of Don Williams’ “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good.”

After she floored the crowd, he pretended to leave with her, then offered a self-deprecating, “What am I gonna do now?”

But he had plenty more to offer. “The Bluegrass Album” succeeds in that Jackson wasn’t hell-bent on a pure bluegrass experience to the point of discarding experimentation. He fully admits “Way Beyond the Blue” -- unlike several of the album’s tracks -- wasn’t meant to be a bluegrass song. (In fact, in another life it could be a Kid Rock summer groove.) But Jackson and his ensemble nailed it, giving depth to both the album and live performances.

Jackson seems to be enjoying this musical journey as much for the experience playing with new musicians as the music itself. In a back-to-basics moment fitting for bluegrass, Jackson recalled working with bass player Tim Dishman and the latter saying he couldn’t work too late because he had to be at a garage at 6 a.m. fixing a car.

“Pretty good pickers, aren’t they?” Jackson asked the crowd.

Yes, Alan Jackson, they sure are.