(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Alan Jackson will turn 50 in October, but he hasn’t lost a step on the competition. There isn’t another male country artist of any age right now who can match him for what he does best. And that’s to write, sing, record and perform country songs of consistent high quality and relevance. His forthcoming album Good Time (due March 4) looms as one of the leading country releases of the year. So I want to present a little preview of it.
I was discussing the album’s song “Small Town Southern Man” with a friend the other day, and he remarked upon the special grace of the song’s words. Later I reflected that there is no other word than “grace” to mark the skillful writing and economy of words in lines such as this: “And he bowed his head to Jesus/And he stood for Uncle Sam/And he only loved one woman/He was always proud of what he had/He said his greatest contribution/Is the ones you leave behind/Raised on the ways and gentle kindness/Of a small town Southern man.”
In some ways, Jackson has become the Ernest Hemingway of country music. In writing, that is. Not necessarily in lifestyle. At Hemingway’s best, he told stories very simply, getting directly to the point. He knew his subject inside out, whether it was bullfighting or deep-sea fishing and could brilliantly tell a vivid story about it in as few words as needed. Similarly, Jackson, has staked out his turf and can write and sing about it in a simple and direct style.
In a song like “Drive” from his past, he showed he could write about learning to drive a car and a boat — without really having to describe it. Because he knew which words to include — and, more importantly, which ones to leave out — in order to spin a credible scenario. But, of course, we knew that after his “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”
Jackson has gotten to a point where he can write a song titled “I Still Like Bologna” that is ostensibly about loving bologna sandwiches but is actually about much, much else, with subtexts of life that simple bologna is shorthand for.
The album contains 17 songs, all of which Jackson wrote. That marks the first time in his career that he has written an entire album, not to mention one with this many songs. His first album, 1990′s Here in the Real World, had 10 songs on it. That was the norm for a country album then.
Recently, Jackson had tried avenues apart from his usual traditional country approach. Like Red on a Rose, produced by Alison Krauss, was a gorgeous and musically adventurous album and a critical success, but it did not sell up to usual Jacksonian standards. His gospel album, Precious Memories, however, sold twice as many copies as Like Red on a Rose. Now, he’s back walking familiar ground, back with his usual producer, Keith Stegall.
“Wish I Could Back Up” is a plaintive love ballad about how mistakes in a romance could be repaired — or avoided — if only the narrator could go back and right the wrong by preventing it.
“If Jesus Walked the World Today” is a sweet ending: “If he was here today/I bet he’d drive a Chevrolet/Workin’ at the plant, drawin’ workers’ pay/He’d preach in some little country church outside of the city/If Jesus walked the world today/He’d probably be a hillbilly.”
I very much like what I’m hearing on this album. Country music is in very good hands with Alan Jackson.