At the beginning of every Alan Jackson concert, a video trots out a visual roll call of all the great country artists that Jackson wants everyone to know he reveres. Cash, Hank, Patsy, Waylon—a grand parade of rebel reprobates who constitute the bedrock of hillbilly style. Jackson’s sales leave the aforementioned artists in the dust, but he has apparently not forsaken them. The 42-year-old hunk from Newnan, Georgia, has recently been on a public crusade to leach out the claptrap from country and bring the music he loves back to its messy, Bud-and-sawdust essence. No more “three minute positive not too country up-tempo love songs,” as Jackson sings on his new album, When Somebody Loves You. An overachiever from the Neo-traditionalist Class of 1989, Jackson has positioned himself as a lone wolf battling Nashville’s powers that be with acoustic guitars and a scruffy pair of Justins on his feet.
Sure, it’s a bit of a marketing con job—Jackson ain’t exactly David Allan Coe, or even Junior Brown—but it took some rawhide cojónes to crash the Predator’s Ball with “Murder on Music Row,” his sardonic duet with George Strait that laid to waste all those Sucker Opies grabbing the bling-bling with the cotton-candy trifle of countless high-concept novelty numbers. “Murder on Music Row,” which eventually hit No. 1, was so baldly confrontational that Strait himself seemed to disavow it as a joke when the pair accepted their trophy for best song at this year’s Country Music Association Awards (would that Jackson had acknowledged the irony of slamming country gimmickry with his own slapstick shtick). Jackson’s too large to worry about offending sensitive music honchos; on last year’s CMA broadcast, he sang George Jones’s “Choices” in his performance slot when Jones was cut off and couldn’t complete the song. He’s Nashville’s Mariano Rivera—as close to a sure thing as any label can hope for—and he’s earned his right to bitch.
Jackson has thrived with an indeterminate persona. He’s a sophisticated hick (he named his band the Strayhorns, after Duke Ellington’s favorite collaborator), an aw-shucks shit-kicker with a Tiffany spittoon. Rather than trade on his private life for tabloid headlines, Jackson projects himself as a stolid, simple craftsman doing good works for the preservation of honky-tonk music. Like a Wrangler-clad Wynton Marsalis, he’s a public figure whose reverence for his musical heritage keeps it real for soccer moms. Reverent, but not slavish: Jackson dilutes country tropes just enough to make them digestible for fans who would never think of buying a Lefty Frizzell album. Jackson is also a master at working both sides of the picket fence. Witness his terrific 1999 covers album Under the Influence, which alternated cuts from the canon like Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top,” Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party,” and George Jones’s “Tall, Tall Trees” with FlufferNutter like Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” Even when Jackson’s pledging fealty to his forebears, he’s got one eye on The Gavin Report.
A high-water mark of the Bush-era Big Hat movement, his 1989 debut album, Here in the Real World, was musically foursquare and tastefully restrained yet perfectly suited to Jackson’s low-key emotionalism; its biggest hits, “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and “Wanted,” offered up simple virtues in both form and content. Later, feel-good product like “Chattahoochee” and “Midnight in Montgomery” borrowed requisite thematic signposts to no startling effect. But Jackson’s resonant, smooth-as-Southern Comfort delivery, with its melancholy echoes of Jones and Haggard, convinces you that clichés are verities. Even when Jackson’s playing the cornpone card, as on his self-pitying anthems “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues),” he’s got enough self-knowing rural soul to make his whimsy work.
When Somebody Loves You is typically sturdy Jackson, whipsawing from gritty to irrelevant to goofy. Now that he’s firmly established himself as Nashville’s acceptable rebel hero, Jackson gleefully and continually chucks empty beer bottles at the establishment. “Meat and Potato Man” is a contemporary reactionary upgrade of “Fightin’ Side of Me” or “Okie From Muskogee”: a long enemy’s-list of fusty bourgeois signifiers (“I don’t like caviar, sushi bars . . . phony stars”). “Where I Come From” and “It’s Alright to Be a Redneck” are Jeff Foxworthy routines without the punch lines, but like those old Haggard songs, they have their own fetid roughneck charm. Jackson perhaps protests too much when it comes to Nashville’s new pop wave—he’s not averse to recording facile boilerplate to notch another hit on his belt, and the new wave has its own virtues. But in the country cosmos, a benign maverick still beats a benevolent hack.