NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Alan Jackson Gets a Milestone Tribute

Recalling the First 20 Years of His Musical Career

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

The 20-year tribute to Alan Jackson at Nashville’s Cadillac Ranch on Wednesday night (June 10) was more than appropriate. It was fittingly understated for an artist who has always been low key in everything he’s done. It was a free show for his fans, and it was almost entirely about the music. He’s let his music do his talking for him. And, oh, what a lovely tale it has told.

Over the past two decades, he has written and recorded heartfelt songs of the common man and woman such as “Little Man,” moving songs of loss such as the current “Sissy’s Song,” sly satire with such numbers as “Gone Country” and “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song,” good time honky-tonk songs like “Chattahoochee” and “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” poignant childhood memories with “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and celebrations of love such as “Livin’ on Love” and “A Woman’s Love.” And the anthem for a pivotal tragedy and a past now long vanished with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”

Along the way, he has done the impossible: keep his traditional audience while attracting and holding onto younger listeners who are drawn by the simplicity and honesty of his lyrics and music. He’s almost alone among major artists in that he writes almost all of his songs.

Some of Jackson’s biggest achievements can’t be measured in the usual music industry tabulations of number of records sold, number of No. 1 songs, number of CMA Awards, etc. There have been quieter moments that have proved to have more lasting effects.

In 1999, when he learned that country music legend George Jones was staying home from the CMA Awards show rather than be subjected to having his nominated autobiographical single “Choices” severely shortened on the show or dropped entirely, Jackson quietly moved into action. Without making a fuss about it, he worked up a quick re-arrangement of his own nominated recording, “Pop a Top.” After beginning his performance, he slid into singing “Choices.” The audience, knowing very clearly what he had done, rose as one to give him a standing ovation. TV viewers at home may not have realized the significance of Jackson’s action, but the country music community got the message. Jackson left the stage and the hall without saying a word.

Jackson had quietly but very strongly made his point. He had cast his vote in favor of country’s traditions and integrity.

After hearing the bluegrass recording of the Larry Shell-Larry Cordle song, “Murder on Music Row,” Jackson performed and recorded the song with his kindred spirit, George Strait. Naysayers said they shouldn’t be making a political statement by cutting the song, which is a very pointed attack on those forces promoting crossover and pushing country music into the pop music camp. But the public liked it and so did many of their fellow artists.

Strait and Jackson won the CMA vocal event of the year award for their duet on “Murder on Music Row” in 2000.

In 2001, after the tragedy of 9/11, Jackson sat down and wrote what today remains the best musical reaction to that terrible event. He surprised the audience and viewers of the 2001 CMA Awards show with his first performance of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” And it was a defining moment in musical history and American history.

In 2006, Jackson did the unthinkable for a major country artist: He released a gospel album. “Career suicide,” whispered the naysayers on Music Row. I guess Jackson and his fans didn’t hear the grumbling. Precious Memories, which Jackson originally recorded solely as a Christmas present for his mother, sold more than 1 million copies.

Along the way, Jackson has proven, and keeps proving, that there is indeed room in country music for true artistry.

View photos from Alan Jackson’s performance at Cadillac Ranch in Nashville.