(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
In all the swirl of comments (many) and the reasoned debate (not much) and the insult-hurling (millions) that resulted from the recent Grammy Awards, I read many posts and reviews that extolled what the writer thought were the highest virtues of a music star. Of all those listed, I don't recall many instances citing what I think is the main requirement of a music artist: good songs.
It just proves the old adage that you can take a wannabe star and tart them up and powder and paint and buff and gloss them and squeeze them into tight, sexy clothes and auto-tune them all day long and buy them some high-priced, pedigreed songwriters, but if it's not in the grooves, then it just plain ain't there. The song is the thing. Plain and simple.
If you look at recent country success stories, in every case, the stardom and, importantly, the lasting power is due to the songs. In recent years, such successful artists as George Strait, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood share a deep appreciation for good songs. The two early success stories of 2010, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, have succeeded mainly on the basis of their songs.
Lady A -- what a story. Won a Grammy for best country vocal performance, sold 690,000 copies of their new CD in two weeks -- at a time when the CD is dying -- but the quality of their songs and their live performances suggest a real possibility of a long career. If they want it.
There have been many flashes in the pan in recent years, with no lasting appeal or durability, and it's because they didn't have the songs. Sometimes an artist appears to have superstar sheen, but it turns out to be just that -- all surface, shined up by packagers and propelled to stardom by three or four sure hit songs pitched by someone else. Then the glow fades and the follow-up songs, despite all the push and all the hype, can't quite climb back up that chart. There's one persistent danger signal that appears: any newcomer who ascends very quickly on the success of songs written by others and then suddenly decides that he or she will start writing all the songs. Why share the money and the acclaim? How hard can it be, right? Well, it can be mighty, mighty hard.
Alan Jackson has been at it for more than 20 years, and he's had many more hits than misses, but it's obvious he still pays close attention to his songs. Jackson and his closest contemporary, Strait, share many common traits. Chief among them may be that care in selecting songs. They are also very private individuals and publicity-averse, but the key thing they share is a love for and respect for a good song -- which is also sometimes a great song. They also share unusually good ears for listening to and filtering out the wheat from the chaff.
Their duet on the song "Murder on Music Row" was an award-winner and one of the surprise hits of 2000, probably for the reason that it was not a typical Music Row composition. But they gave it a much bigger platform than its bluegrass roots would have allowed otherwise.
Another important trait Strait and Jackson share is understatement -- in songs and in performance. Wasted motions, excess words seem to have no place in their worlds -- pare it down to the essentials and see what you have left.
I bring all this up because I've been listening to Jackson's forthcoming album, Freight Train, due March 30. It will be jostling for position with such prominent new releases as Lady A's Need You Now and Josh Turner's Haywire, as well as upcoming albums from Gretchen Wilson, Blake Shelton, Easton Corbin, Josh Thompson and Randy Houser.
Freight Train is another notable chapter in his long body of work of music minimalism. There have been times in his career when Jackson wrote more songs than he needed to at that particular junction in his life. He wrote eight of the 12 cuts here, but he has since learned when to let other songwriters show him the way. The title song by Fred Eaglesmith here is a shining example. Eaglesmith is a country-folk singer-songwriter from a large farming family in Ontario who is equally careful with his songs. His "Freight Train" really "chugs," as a friend accurately noted, and it's quite an energetic workout for Jackson.
I would bet that "Tail Light Blues," written by Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, is a song that Alan wishes he had written. It's perfectly tailored to his sense of minimal writing, with the hook being that car tail lights should be blue to go with saying goodbye.
Jackson's own deceptively simple lyrics are shown off in "Every Now and Then," the current radio single. I didn't realize that his spare style could be pared down even more, but "I Could Get Used to This Lovin' Thing," evokes both the rockabilly ear and the basic sound of Johnny Cash's Tennessee Two.
"True Love Is a Golden Ring," which Jackson co-wrote with Roger Murrah, is a gem of a song and is a reminder that some songs are timeless. It also evokes symbols of some brilliant songs from days gone by -- Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" and George Jones' and Tammy Wynette's "Golden Ring," to name two.
There's nothing flashy or showy on this album. The themes on Freight Train are familiar but welcome, and you definitely know you're in Jackson territory. There are many songs about romantic love, a life parable disguised as a fishing song, a bittersweet paean to a young daughter, a lilting duet (with Lee Ann Womack), a song of regret, another one of goodbye, a tribute to the workingman and everyday life. That's Jackson's side of the street. These days, it's not a very crowded place.