Someday soon — if it’s not happening already — college kids will study Alan Jackson ’s lyrics in their poetry classes, just as their counterparts in the 1960s pored over songs by Bob Dylan. Jackson isn’t simply a master of incandescent imagery. He also has a rapper’s ear for verbal harmonics. Who else in country music would think to (or dare to) rhyme “Venus” with “reread it” and “Atlanta” and “get her”? These days, he extracts more gold from the stones of common experience than anyone else in the business.
The 44-year-old star brought his 13 years of hits to Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville Friday (Nov. 15) to a worshipful, but less than capacity, crowd. Wearing a brown fringed shirt and torn jeans, Jackson moved in loose, long-legged glides across the stage, sometimes looking like a marionette leaning back on its strings. Although he always appears awkward and frozen in place when he’s accepting awards, he is far more amiable and at ease in concert. He and his band, the Strayhorns, performed in front of a mammoth screen that displayed music videos, film clips and other mood-assisting scenery, as well as live images of the performer himself.
It was a long evening — running from 7 to 11:15 — and many of the faithful didn’t show up to occupy their seats until just before Jackson came on at 9:45. But they didn’t stay seated long. With the opening sounds of “Gone Country,” they were up and screaming, and they stayed that way through the first four songs. During his second selection, “I Don’t Even Know Your Name,” Jackson thanked the crowd for coming out to see him on such a rainy night and strolled to the edge of the stage to reach down and touch hands. When he swung into “Livin’ on Love,” the crowd began singing along spontaneously.
The band opened “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” with a teasing Hendrix-like screeching of electric guitars as tie-dyed patterns swayed on the screen. When he finished the song, Jackson beamed, “You’re a great crowd. You make me want to sing all night long.” This coy come-on was, of course, a takeoff on the “We might just stay here until 3 or 4 in the morning” gambit that Jackson’s idol, George Jones, uses to incite his audiences.
Noting that he had long loved the song, Jackson delighted the house with an earnest and impassioned reading of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” complete with bluegrass mandolin and banjo licks. The crowd roared at the first sound of the banjo, surely an encouraging sign to those preaching a return to musical traditionalism. The only lag in the show was a tediously drawn out instrumental conclusion to the otherwise moving “The Blues Man.”
The audience came out of its seats again for “Chattahoochee” and stayed so, lighters aloft, when Jackson followed this paean to youthful exuberance with the chilling “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” He immediately mood-shifted again to the closing number, “Where I Come From,” illustrated on the screen behind him with dozens of shots of Nashville landmarks.
Jackson and company left the stage at 11:05 but were urged back by three minutes of solid cheering. They encored with a rambling, here-to-the-horizon jam of “Mercury Blues.” As the band found new ways to stretch the song out, Jackson ambled from one end of the stage to the other, autographing white hats, T-shirts and any other item thrust up to him. He was clearly reluctant to ignore or turn anyone down.
By now, Jackson has so many hits to cover that it’s impossible for him to do a show without leaving out someone’s favorite. But he is so attentive to his music and congenial to his audience that it’s hard to imagine anyone going away disappointed.
The ever-charming Lee Ann Womack preceded Jackson with a 14-song set that tilted toward her early catalog. Womack didn’t talk a lot between songs, a virtue in its own right, but she did project a great deal of warmth. Her emotionally transfixing voice is one of country music’s sublime treasures. She took the stage following a grand pre-recorded orchestral flourish that was more Elvis than Hank, but she quickly came back to earth with “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t.”
Her hair currently blonde, Womack wore a gauzy, knee-length purple dress and red, high-heeled boots. Although she occasionally paced the stage, she sang several times seated. She even had a fancy couch brought in for her to sit on during one segment of the program. For her third song, she rendered the decidedly pop “Something Worth Leaving Behind.” Then, as if recalling complaints some critics have made about her recent pop leanings, she asked, “How do you feel about some real country music?” With the ensuing screams providing the right answer, Womack moaned out her 1997 country-to-the-core hit, “Never Again, Again.”
A couple of songs later, Womack took on the apocalyptic funkiness of “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” her performance of which had been a high point of the 2001 CMA awards show. She followed soon after with her first No. 1 hit, “The Fool,” and continued with “The Preacher Won’t Have to Lie,” noting, “I’m equally as proud of this as any No. 1 I’ve ever had.”
From her new Christmas album, A Season for Romance, Womack performed the wistful “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” which she said she had learned from an Ella Fitzgerald album. Although her megahit “I Hope You Dance” earned her a tumultuous reception, Womack came closest to driving the crowd — OK, the women in the crowd — into a frenzy with her delightfully mean-spirited “I’ll Think of a Reason Later.” She closed with a scorching, pulsating rendition of “Ashes by Now.”
The other opening acts were Universal South’s new find, Joe Nichols, and the duo of Adam and Shannon Wright. Nichols, who came out of the chute at the new label with a No. 1, “The Impossible,” proved to be every bit as compelling a vocalist as his champions have said he is. But as a performer, he’s still a bit rough at the corners. On this night, he engaged in too much nervous chatter, surely a function of having too few of his own hits to sing, but distracting nonetheless. His covers of other people’s hits, notably Johnny Paycheck ’s “A-11” and Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party,” were first rate, good enough to stand even with the originals. The vocal talent is there. All Nichols needs is some polishing.
Given the fact that they were playing to a crowd that knew little or nothing about them (their names weren’t even on the tickets), the Wrights acquitted themselves particularly well. Each a strong lead vocalist, the two turned in a seven-song set that was smooth, fluid and varied, aided by original lyrics that relied more on insights than hooks for their power.
Adam and Shannon Wright
“Down This Road”
“Things Have Changed”
“Keep Me Posted”
“You Got the Thorn”
“Rain or Shine”
“I Want My Rib Back”
“You Can’t Break the Fall”
Lee Ann Womack
“Now You See Me, Now You Don’t”
“You’ve Got to Talk to Me”
“Something Worth Leaving Behind”
“Never Again, Again”
“A Little Past Little Rock”
“Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”
“You Should’ve Lied”
“The Preacher Won’t Have To Lie”
“Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
“I’ll Think of a Reason Later”
“I Hope You Dance”
“Ashes by Now”
“I Don’t Even Know Your Name”
“Tall, Tall Trees”
“Livin’ on Love”
“When Somebody Loves You”
“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
“Here in the Real World”
“Murder On Music Row”
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”
“Work in Progress”
“The Blues Man”
“Pop a Top”
“Drive (For Daddy Gene)”
“Who’s Cheatin’ Who”
“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”
“Where I Come From”