NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Alan Jackson Leads Wave of Writing Country Singers

Taylor Swift and Ashton Shepherd Show Nifty Writing Chops

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I’ve been spending a good bit of time lately listening to what are more and more seeming to be strong contenders as the three most significant albums of the present country music era. And the interesting thing is that none of these three albums was totally expected, going against the current trends as they do.

All are by gifted songwriters and all exude genuineness. I hesitate to use the current trendy word — “authenticity” — but there you have it. Real songs mostly about real people doing real things in real situations. Not too revolutionary a concept, you would think. Until you try to think of songs like that you’ve heard recently. Songs that got to you and made a genuine impression on you.

Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut album, which did not make a big dent in my consciousness when it was first released, has steadily grown on me. The full significance of this CD — apart from its huge commercial impact — lies in the unusual fact that it is the first country album ever sung and totally written or co-written by a high school girl, intended for other high school girls. We didn’t know, did we, that high school girls were country music fans of anyone other than cute-ish young guy singers? Guess again. Here they are. You think Miley Cyrus hasn’t been watching this? Swift, of course, has reached double-platinum CD and double-platinum download (for the song “Teardrops on My Guitar”) plateaus by transcending age and gender. Her appeal seems boundless at this stage.

There have been other teen country female singers, but none with this level of songwriting prowess or songwriting success. LeAnn Rimes hit at age 14 with an adult-written song (“Blue”) that had been intended for Patsy Cline. Tanya Tucker first had success at age 13 with a song written by male adults (“Delta Dawn”) and guided by the Tammy Wynette’s svengali, Billy Sherrill. Taylor was all of 17 when she first made an impression with her “Tim McGraw.”

Ashton Shepherd arrived in town last year as a very young adult with something like 150 finished songs. At age 21. That doesn’t happen in every songwriter’s life, let alone in every singer-songwriter’s life. The thing I feel is most important about her debut Sounds So Good, to be released Tuesday (March 4), is that it’s the most fully-realized, complete and most mature album by a female country singer-songwriter in years. (She wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s songs.) And there’s no denying her country bona fides. One listen to her and you are deep into pure country, where you haven’t been since some of Loretta Lynn’s work.

And Alan Jackson. Well, he’s Alan Jackson. And other songwriters are not. His Good Time, also being released Tuesday, is the first fully self-written work by a major male country artist at his commercial level in quite some time. With 17 original songs, it’s also longer than any recent male CDs, apart from Vince Gill’s These Days.

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about some of my favorite songs on Good Time. (See the Feb. 14 column.) Here are a couple more, which mine almost the same vein, but from different directions.

“Long, Long Way” is a sad, sad song of romantic loss. I don’t know how you could say it any better in just a few words than Jackson does here: “That clock just runs in circles/The days just go on by/The memories hold me closer/No matter how I cry.”

“I Wish I Could Back Up” reverberates with that same theme: “But it’s never too late to wanna do better/Love’s never easy, changes just like the weather/Some days it’s raining, some are sunny and blue/There’s never perfect, but there’s faithful and true.” Although Jackson won’t say which songs on this album actually sprang full-blown from his personal experience, I would put my money on both of these.

Then there’s the let’s-have-some-fun song, “Nothing Left to Do.”

And we went out to dinner
And we drove right back home
Watched an old movie
And drank half a bottle of rum
Then we turned off the TV
And we got right down to it
There ain’t nothing left to do
Now that we’ve done it.

I’m not saying these three works represent a singer-songwriter renaissance, but just about all of these songs are a cut above what we’re accustomed to hearing around here. And I like that.