So great are his powers of self-effacement that Alan Jackson often seems a bystander in his own music videos. It's not that he's camera shy -- he's made more than 40 videos -- it's just that he's a master at directing our attention elsewhere.
Even when his lyrics are in first person, his "I's," "me's" and "my's" tend to focus on matters bigger than himself -- things like love, family, home and the distant joys of youth. He functions basically in his videos as a strolling troubadour who tells you stories so rich in images and so deep in emotions that he's gone before you notice. Such is the scenario for his latest video, "Sissy's Song," a tribute to a departed friend.
In a much less serious video, "www. memory," his singing face is everywhere, from the side of a passing bus to the front page of a newspaper to the top of a water tower. But the figure who really grabs and holds you is the svelte, black-clad blonde in the red PT Cruiser who looks upon this infestation of Alans with increasing alarm.
Jackson established who he is and what he values in 1989 with his first video, "Blue Blooded Woman." In it, he's a blue-collar garage owner who dates an elegant classical violinist. ("She loves the violin, I love the fiddle," so the song goes.) And he's simply one of the guys -- hard working, good natured, with no airs, no pretensions and no small talk. It's the persona that will inhabit all his subsequent videos.
Of the fabled Class of '89, Jackson was the only one to use videos to develop himself into a consistently recognizable "brand." Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt experimented with a series of dramatic roles that allowed you to see in them a variety of personalities. Clint Black never settled on a video identity that was any more specific than the one suggested by the lyrics of the particular song he was singing. But Jackson was same down-to-earth character every time he appeared on screen.
Just as important, he created his personal Garden of Eden -- the small-town South, to which his songs and videos would return again and again. There would be new stories but no surprising changes of image.
"Here in the Real World" and "Wanted" (both 1990) were visually and thematically somber, but "Don't Rock the Jukebox" (1991) allowed Jackson to kick up his heels a bit as he's proclaiming his affinity for traditional country music. The more Jackson rocks out, though, the more our gaze is drawn to the man silhouetted at a table beside the jukebox. There's something familiar about that profile. Could it be? Why, yes it is. It's George Jones. Jackson has succeeded in upstaging himself.
The same thing happens in "Midnight in Montgomery" (1992) in which he salutes another musical idol, Hank Williams. Shot in black and white, the video follows the singer as he alights from his tour bus late at night and walks to Williams' grave. There he's approached by "a drunk man in a cowboy hat" who speaks to him and then vanishes, only to appear again as a fleeting shadow as Jackson re-boards his bus. Here the dead have a stronger presence than the living.
"Chattahoochee" (1993) accentuated Jackson's fun-loving side and created the image that will stay with him for life -- that of him water-skiing wildly in jeans and cowboy hat. Even with such a strong visual, however, he doesn't dominate the video. Just as compelling are the young lovers stealing a kiss and the lissome lass in the bathing suit.
"Livin' on Love" (1994), Jackson's video valentine to his parents, celebrates love that matures and endures through mutually experienced hardships. Illustrating that point is a series of old photos of a couple at different stages of their life. In 2003, Jackson revisited this same theme in "Remember When," which features videos and photos of his wife and children. It is one of the most poetic and moving videos to come out of country music.
"Drive (For Daddy Gene)" (2002) is another family-themed outing in which Jackson recalls his father teaching him how to drive a boat and a truck and how he must now teach those skills to his own daughters. Each video opens the door wider on the singer's idealized world and values.
While "Chattahoochee" showed the joys of rural living, "Little Man" (1999) illustrates its dark side. Jackson explains at the start of the video that he was inspired to write the song on which it is based after he impulsively decided to hop into his car and take a long drive.
That drive led him through a string of small towns whose mom-and-pop businesses had dried up because of the onset of Wal-Marts, self-serve gas stations, convenience stores and strip malls. The video is less of a rallying cry than a death knell. It's not hard to imagine the garage-owner depicted in Jackson's first video as being a victim of this ruthless commercial onslaught.
Artistically speaking, the video for "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" (2001) has little going for it. It was shot live during the CMA Awards and consists of Jackson sitting on a stool singing with his band, backup singers and a string section lined up behind him. But he sings of the awful events of the previous Sept. 11 with such serenity, reassurance and wisdom that his performance is spellbinding.
This is the Alan Jackson you notice.
Watch more of Alan Jackson's music videos.