For 20 years, Alan Jackson‘s career in country music has been chugging right along. Following a recent visit to CMT’s Top 20 Countdown, Jackson eased into the afternoon to chat about the sad songs on his new album, Freight Train. In the second half of this two-part interview, he talks about his fondness for sad songs, as well as his admiration for three of his own favorite country singers — Vern Gosdin, Don Williams and Lee Ann Womack.
CMT: I’m drawn to sad songs like “Every Now and Then” and “Tail Lights Blue.” Why is it important to include sad songs, rather than one happy tune after another?
Jackson: Oh, me, too. Yeah, I like the sad ones myself better. Always have. They have a lot of emotion and as a writer, they’re easier to write. I’ve always included them on albums, and I think they’ve been a part of country music forever — and should always be. I know people out there have a hard enough time and they like to hear tempo and something fun to make them forget about anything. But I’ve had a lot of people that appreciate a heartache song that sounds like what they just went through. It makes them feel like there’s somebody else out there. They’re still my favorites.
Have you ever written anything that’s just way too sad?
Oh, man. Some of my band guys used to make fun of me because my first Christmas album, Honky Tonk Christmas, had a lot of songs like my regular stuff, and then I had a song called “Merry Christmas to Me.” It was pretty bad! (laughs)
Out of Vern Gosdin’s long career, how did you come to choose “Till the End”?
That’s a tough call because I could sing a dozen of Vern’s songs that I love. That song is one that I’ve had in my hip pocket for years that I said I’ve wanted to remake but I never got to it. When Vern passed away, I wanted to do a song that was a tribute to him and that one automatically came to mind. It worked out great because I always wanted to sing with Lee Ann, and she finally agreed to sing with me. It was a perfect combination. His ex-wife wrote that. I didn’t know that until I cut it.
What does Lee Ann bring to that performance?
What she brings to it is, she makes me sound terrible! (laughs) I love her voice. We started that thing and I was listening back and said, “Man, I sound pretty good there.” And when Lee Ann came on, I was like, “Ohhhh, I sound terrible!” She’s such a pure country singer. She can make anything sound good. I think it was the perfect voice for me and the song.
I remember your remake of Don Williams’ “It Must Be Love.” Now that he is going into the Country Music Hall of Fame, why do you think his music has endured?
You know, Don created his own little niche and his own sound, which was partly his voice and production. I think a big part of Don was that Bob McDill was a writer on the hits that he had — the big ones, anyway. It was a time when he had those great songs from Bob McDill and created that sound of his. The thing I like about it is, it’s country but it had a little more contemporary feel to it, but it didn’t get away from the rootsy part of country too much. The songs were sophisticated to a certain degree. I think that’s why his music had a big following worldwide. He could go about anywhere and play. He reminded me of a James Taylor/country music kind of sound. I am a big fan of his.
When did you cross paths with Bob McDill?
Just being a fan, when we looked for songs, I always asked if he had anything new. That’s where “Gone Country” came from. He wrote that in the early ’90s when country was so hot and everybody was flocking to Nashville from other formats to be a country star. It was kind of a slam but people didn’t hear it that way — at least the fans didn’t. It was a big record for me. We actually wrote a song or two together but I don’t think they amounted to much. Neither one of us did too good on those. (laughs)
I’ve always heard that the direction of country music goes in cycles and that it always comes back to where it was. Do you buy that theory?
I don’t know that it will ever come back. It’s never gone back to where Hank Williams was. … If you go back and listen to a lot of the music from the early-to-mid-80s, and the late ’80s, some of the artists and the records were more pop than what is out there today — in the production and the songs and the way they sang them. There were still country acts like John Anderson and Ricky Skaggs and George Strait. There was always country. And then Randy Travis came along and Keith Whitley was in there. And my generation came in there. Now it’s not as pop as it was then, but it seems like it’s more country-rock integrated with some kind of ’80s pop or something. (laughs)
But there’s still country! The point I’m trying to get to is that there are young guys that still like the same kind of stuff I liked in 1985 and probably coming to Nashville like I did, saying, “I’m a young guy and I want to sing country music like Merle Haggard did.” I think there will always be people coming around to do that. I think it’s harder and harder to get it played out there, but if you can get through with a great song. … The fans don’t care if it’s traditional country or contemporary or whatever. If it’s a good song and they like it, they like it.Read the first part of the Alan Jackson interview.