Alan Jackson named his brand new album, Freight Train, after a fast-paced bluegrass tune by Fred Eaglesmith that he heard on satellite radio. Although the breaking-up breakdown didn’t come from Jackson’s own deep catalog, he snapped it right up.
“I’ve always said that those are the hardest ones to write, any up-tempo song,” he confirms. “It’s hard to come up with something fun that’s not silly or cheesy. The lyrics were strong enough, and it had a couple of different chords in it that didn’t make it so straight-ahead bluegrass that I could make it sound like a country record.”
If anybody knows how to make it sound like a country record, it would be Jackson. Over the last two decades, the easygoing singer-songwriter has steadily accumulated nearly 50 Top 10 country hits and won 16 CMA Awards. Following a visit to CMT’s Top 20 Countdown, Jackson shifted into low gear for a rare interview. In the first half of this two-part interview, Jackson discusses his video for “It’s Just That Way,” his early career in construction and how he rediscovered one of the first songs he wrote in Nashville.
CMT: I understand that your daughter, Mattie, came up with the idea for the video of “It’s Just That Way.” How did she present the idea to you?
Jackson: She called me on the telephone. She was out of town, at school. She was telling me about it and I thought it was pretty cool. I said, “Well, you need to write it down,” and she said, “I don’t know how to write it.” She’s seen a bunch of those treatments over her life, and I said, “Just like those directors write them.” She put it on the computer and sent it. And that was it.
I wanted to ask you about “Hard Hat and a Hammer” because I know you worked construction in the early days. What did you build?
I’ve done about everything. I worked for a guy that had a construction company that did residential and commercial buildings, so I did a little of both. I did remodeling and worked on new homes. I worked in a cabinet shop one time to build kitchen cabinets. I actually was a contractor myself for a while. I got my contractor’s license and built a couple of small homes in Georgia and sold them back when Denise and I were young.
“I Could Get Used to This Lovin’ Thing” reminds me of those early Johnny Cash records on Sun.
(laughs) That just kind of happened that way. That song lent itself to that feel. Originally we cut it more like my regular production, but the engineer that has worked with us so long, John Kelton, didn’t have anything to do one day, and he started playing around with that mix on that thing. He broke it down and did the little stops in there, just goofing off with it. He gave me a copy of it and I liked it that way, so we kind of worked on it some more and it ended up that way. I like that cut. That’s kind of fun.
I admire this album because I can hear everything that’s going on. How important is it for you to make sure that the band doesn’t get lost in the mix?
We’ve been pretty lucky with Keith being such a music guy. He’s not just a producer. He’s been an artist and songwriter, and he’s a musician that plays just about everything. He’s got an incredible ear. And John Keltner, the engineer, he’s like some kind of freak. He hears everything. So I’ve always been blessed to have a team like that to work on all the sounds and sonically do things that I can’t really hear. I’m not as good at that but I’ve always had a lot of compliments on our records and the sound of them. I think John was working with Keith when they cut some demos on me before I even got a record deal.
How many demos did you do back then?
Before Keith cut me, I had done two or three different projects for people. I don’t know how many songs, but several different times, over four or five years. Every label passed on me at least once! (laughs) Then Keith cut some of my songs, and I finally got the sound on tape that I wanted. That’s when we first got any interest from labels.
How did “True Love Is a Golden Ring” come back to your attention? I understand that’s an older song.
Yeah. Adam and Shannon Wright — he’s my nephew and she’s his wife — are a duo called the Wrights. They’ve been around and had some records and they’re both good songwriters. Anyway, they cut an album a couple of years ago and wanted some of my old stuff. They went and dug that song up. It was in one of my catalogs at a publishing company. I had forgotten about that thing. I had always wanted to cut it but I just forgot about it. They ended up doing a really cool version of it. When I heard that, I thought I might put it on my next album.
When you first heard the Wrights sing it, did it take you right back to 1987?
Yeah, it made me remember writing that song. I wrote that with Roger Murrah. I don’t know the exact date, but I would say probably 1987. I remember the first few albums, when we were starting out, I had so many songs lying around. Every now and then I tried to use some of them. Some of them don’t always work together on an album, so you leave them out — and then you forget about them. I still have, gosh, I don’t know how many lying around in publishing catalogs that I’ve always wanted to cut. That was just another one that was there. I always liked that song.