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Alan Jackson: Country Standard Time

The singer-songwriter resists so-called modern country to keep traditional sounds alive

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

In a music genre increasingly dominated by pop-sounding tunes, Alan Jackson admits he sometimes feels like the standard-bearer for real country music.

©EMI
Alan Jackson (©EMI Nashville)

That he's one of the few contemporary country acts still purveying the format's traditional fiddle and steel sounds is not lost on him.

"You listen to the radio and one of my songs jumps across. It definitely is a different sound," he says. "There's some great music coming out of Nashville, [but] it's not all real country.

"But the thing is, I think there are a lot of young artists that really want to make the real country stuff," he continues. "It's just getting a little bit harder to get the labels to jump on that, and it's harder to get radio to play it. They're kind of leaning toward a more top 40, kind of up-tempo sound."

There's nothing that could be described as pop-country on Jackson's new album, "Thirty Miles West," which hit stores on June 5. It's full of the traditional sounds that have helped Jackson sell nearly 60 million albums worldwide and land some 50 top 10 singles since he launched his career as part of the format's storied Class of '89. Of that group of once reliable hit-makers, which also included Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Travis Tritt, Jackson is the only one still getting airplay on country radio with new material, although that's getting harder even for him.

"Thirty Miles West" is his 14th album, and Jackson says he and longtime producer Keith Stegall stuck with what's worked so well in the past.

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"When I go in and make an album, it's pretty much the same old recipe we've always done," he admits. "Of course I always try to find good songs, and I try to write a few ... [but] I don't really know that I added anything different to this one."

One thing that is different on this album is the label releasing it. After spending his entire career on Arista Nashville, Jackson recently shook things up professionally by making a move to EMI Records Nashville, which is now marketing and distributing his albums in association with Jackson's own imprint, ACR, an acronym for Alan's Country Records. (He first formed that label in 2005 as a vehicle for the debut album from a duo called the Wrights that included Jackson's nephew.)

Jackson says the current team at Arista was completely different than the team he'd started there with, so making the move to a new label "wasn't a scary change for me. I think it was just time."

The staff at EMI, meanwhile, "made us feel like we had a team that was excited and was really into the music," he says. "It makes a difference when their attitudes are that way."

Jackson wrote six of the 13 songs on the new album, including "Dixie Highway." It's a nearly seven-and-a-half-minute recollection of his youth, on which Jackson duets with Zac Brown, who is returning the favor from when Jackson performed on the Zac Brown Band's Grammy-winning No. 1 hit "As She's Walking Away" in 2010.

"Zac and I both respect each other and are [mutual] fans," says Jackson. "So when I did that song with him a couple of years ago, I told him next time I made an album, if I had a good song that worked I'd holler at him." In "Dixie Highway," Jackson says, "It felt like the perfect one because he's from Georgia and it's about the rural South. It's just a fun picking [song] that reminded me of what his band likes to do."

"Dixie Highway" is one of Jackson's most personal songs, but it's those songs that seem to have resonated with his fans the most through the years. They include hits like "Drive (For Daddy Gene)," "Home," "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," "Sissy's Song" and "Chattahoochee." The latter came complete with an unforgettable video of Jackson water skiing in tattered jeans, and Jackson quips that the clip made him "the first action figure in country music." The skis and jeans are now enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Surprisingly, however, Jackson says he initially resisted the label's decision to release "Chattahoochee" as a single because he thought it was too personal for others to relate to.

"It was a fun song about growing up in the South by the Chattahoochee River and coming of age, [but] when the label wanted to put it out, I said, 'I love the song, but people aren't going to know what the Chattahoochee is,'" he recalls. "'People out in Oregon or up in Vermont or in New Mexico aren't going to relate to that thing.' But I was totally wrong. That's the first time I realized it doesn't matter. People have that same story everywhere. I realized that people will identify with stuff no matter where you're writing from."

Perhaps his most personal song to date closes "Thirty Miles West." The poignant ballad "When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey)," was inspired by his wife Denise's recent fight with colorectal cancer.

Find: Alan Jackson videos

Jackson wrote the song in the first week after her diagnosis in late 2010 but kept it to himself for the duration of her illness.

"When we found out about her cancer, of course it was just the hardest thing we've ever faced as a couple," he says. "It really knocked me down. We've been together since we were children, basically, 17 and 16 years old, and I've pretty much always taken care of everything, all the way back to when we were poor and working back in Georgia. It's always been that way our whole life, and [cancer] was something I just couldn't do a thing about. It just about killed me I couldn't help her.

"For Denise to have something like that was so bizarre, because she's the healthiest person," Jackson continues. "She never has a cold, never has a headache. I'm the one that's whiny and sick all the time. It was just so shocking.

"That song just started coming out that first week we were dealing with it," he says. "I wrote it and I never told anybody about it because I didn't know where everything was going at the time, and I didn't want to play anything like that for her or anybody else."

By the time Denise was finished with her treatments and well again, her husband was getting ready to record "Thirty Miles West," and he felt strongly about including this very personal song because he thought it might help others going through the same situation. He shared it with Denise after he'd finally recorded it.

"She cried and was very moved by it," he says. "Everybody around us that heard it felt the same way, friends and family. I tried not to write it so obvious. You kind of have to listen to it to really understand what it's about.

"We've met so many people and heard so many stories [of those] that had a battle with cancer," he says. "I felt like a lot of people would appreciate that song and relate to the lyrics."

After all the success Jackson has enjoyed in his career, he says there's not much left on his musical bucket list. He's already made a gospel album, although he says "everybody is wearing me out for the last three or four years to make another one." But what he'd really like to do one day is record a "straight-up bluegrass album, a real one," he says. He tried making one with Alison Krauss a few years back, but says, "We ended up going in a different direction." But he hasn't abandoned the idea. "That's still something I really love and want to do," he says. "It would be fun.

"Other than that, I don't have a lot of musical goals left," he adds. "I've done everything you can imagine, won about every award there is [and] played for four presidents. It's hard for me to put anything else on the list."

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites, including Radio-Info.com, where she authors the newsletter Stark Country. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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4Comments
Jun 4, 2012 8:00AM
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Gennielyn:  You must be VERY old.  Most of the artists you named are either dead or soon will be.

Still got that Victrola in the bedroom?

 

I love the old stuff and have a lot of it and even have an autographed poster of Alan, as I collect this kind of thing, but I love the newer music too.  Are you saying that newer artists like Zac Brown and Blake Shelton and Chris Young are not country?  Bull sh*t!  How about Chesney and Keith Urban and Lady A?  Glad my mind is not as closed as some of you posters.

Jun 4, 2012 12:45AM
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Thank You, Alan.. for standing up for traditional Country Music, the way it IS supposed to be. Bill Anderson's Porter Wagoner's, George Jones, Johnny Cash..Loretta Lynn, Lynn Anderson, Tammy Wynette, Jeannie Pruitt, Jeannie C. Riley, Donna Fargo..Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, and more etc. are and would be proud of your stand for God-Given gifts and talents such as these and your talents included..  May God bless you and your family..Alan.  (((HUGGS)))
Jun 3, 2012 4:05PM
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Keep going Alan, you're one of the best in country music. And tell George Jones I said "Hey Possum" next time you see him. 
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