With its yawing steel guitar and supercharged pop piano, “Anywhere on Earth You Are,” the opening track on Alan Jackson’s latest, sets the tone for 2006’s uncanniest country record. The tune works off standard sentiments like “All I wanna do is be/Anywhere on earth you are,” but the song gives off the ambiguous nostalgia of a 1970s Chicago soul single. Jackson’s reading of these lines is instructive: He pauses between on and earth, paying tribute to producer Alison Krauss’s structural savvy and ear for the telling detail, and he indulges in a quaver on are as if he’s Hoagy Carmichael. Mentally add an electric sitar and you’ve got 2006’s savviest retro move.
Like Red on a Rose is rich with allusion and indirection. “Nobody Said That It Would Be Easy” is like some lost Marshall Tucker song (except when it sounds like Little Feat on the slide-guitar solo), and “Where Do I Go From Here (A Trucker’s Song)” is essentially “Oh, Susannah” coupled with Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” The magical guitar figure that anchors “The Firefly’s Song” is worthy of McCartney; this is country as a collection of memories just out of reach that Jackson can only apprehend through the canniest of uncanny musical strategies.