Some Alan Jackson fans camped out for as many as 14 hours for the chance to cram into Nashville’s venerably down-home bluegrass dive the Station Inn for this rare all-acoustic performance Tuesday night (Aug. 27).
And once the white cowboy hat-wearing man himself took the low-slung stage — at 9:30 p.m. on the dot since the show was a live radio broadcast on Nashville radio station WSM-AM — he noted he’d just concluded a 15-year wait of his own. That’s how long he’d been itching to make a bluegrass record.
Jackson claimed to be more nervous in front of this crowd of a couple of hundred — in which pompadoured bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury was seated front-and-center — than he’d be playing to thousands in the sprawling arenas and sheds that usually populate his tour itinerary. With Tuesday’s show and The Bluegrass Album it celebrated, he was bent on pleasing the bluegrass audience. The album will be released on Sept. 24.
To his left and right was just about the finest and most decorated bluegrass backing band money can buy in 2013 — fiddler Tim Crouch, Dobro player Rob Ickes, mandolinist Adam Steffey, harmony vocalists Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby, bassist Tim Dishman, banjo player Sammy Shelor and Jackson’s longtime flatpicking guitarist Scott Coney.
“When you got world-class bluegrass guys like this, they make anybody sound good,” Jackson said, later admitting, with a sheepish chuckle, “I’ll be honest. I didn’t know how big they were until they came and did this album.”
Jackson got visible enjoyment out of sharing the spotlight with such first-rate pickers, giving every single lead instrument at least one solo in the opening number, “Long Hard Road.” The only guest performers of the night were his singing and songwriting nephew and niece Adam and Shannon Wright.
He was no less generous with his offhand, between-song rambles, some of them amusing, others tender and all contributing to a sense of neighborly intimacy between entertainer and audience.
There was the one where his wife Denise wanted to know why his love song to her was titled “Mary.” (Besides the fact it had a nice ring to it, he thought he’d win points for using Jesus’ mother’s name.) And one about the serial-dating owner of a bar where Jackson shot a music video. (The guy promised to play Jackson’s song “Tie Me Down” at his long-awaited wedding.) Then there was his touching account of sharing “Blue Side of Heaven” with George Jones’ mourning wife Nancy.
Jackson sang much of the latter ballad with his eyes closed. And, really, throughout a set full of paeans to lifelong love and stability, he made no strained displays of emotion whatsoever, leaning instead on his modestly masculine yet deeply felt style of expression.
This wasn’t an occasion for Jackson to ’grass up his catalog — though he did just that with “Back to Me and You”– so much as roll out a bunch of sturdy, new originals and covers of John Anderson, the Dillards and Bill Monroe tunes. And just as significant as his tradition-honoring choice of the Monroe standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the way he sang the song — more relaxed than the waltz-time original and not at all high and lonesome. No, Jackson worked his familiar, comfortably low vocal range. Even when the band launched into the up-tempo number “Appalachian Mountain Girl,” Jackson’s phrasing sat snugly behind the beat, sounding as natural as could be that way.
Whatever fears he had about not passing bluegrass muster — or not doing justice to the affinity he’s had for the genre since he heard it on television as a kid — were in vain. It was obvious he felt the stuff, in his unfussy, unhurried way, and therefore felt no need to go through the genre motions. The bottom line, WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs told him at the end of the show, was, “These people just like Alan Jackson music.”