As soon as Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum director Kyle Young concluded his admiring introduction of artist-in-residence honoree, Alan Jackson not only took the stage but took the reverence down a notch, joking that it wore him out having to listen to a list of his accomplishments.
"Artist-in-Residence, they keep saying," Jackson explained. "I haven't seen one place for me to stay yet."
Here Jackson was, the subject of an upstairs museum exhibit marking his 25th anniversary in the business, the focal point of an annual, elite performing series and a shoo-in for Hall of Fame induction sooner rather than later. Yet the veteran hitmaker wasn't going to let it go to his head or get in the way of his easy, earthy rapport with his audience.
It was almost as though he'd brought his arena show to the significantly smaller and statelier CMA Theater since he still kicked off the evening with his standard show opener "Gone Country," tossed T-shirts into the crowd and signed posters, programs and boots while his band soloed. His fans still waved homemade signs during "Good Time," and shortened versions of his many music videos were projected onto a giant screen behind him.
The biggest and most pleasing departure from his typical performances was the way he made the night into one rambling, informal conversation, recounting old memories of the business (like the big, dead rat he found in a motel pool on tour and the fact that he sang the demo for Travis Tritt's hit "Country Club") and sources of songwriting inspiration (anniversaries, deaths, westerns and his rough-hewn childhood home) off the top of his head. He also confessed at multiple moments he'd lost his train of thought and pointed out where his wife Denise Jackson and his nephew's young family were sitting with evident affection.
Jackson really got into what he called "all this retrospective stuff," introducing "Home" as the first song he wrote after he and Denise moved to Nashville, "Here in the Real World" as the No. 1 that saved him from having to go back to working some other job for a living, "Wanted" and "I'd Love You All Over Again" as two compositions he started on the same rainy day in a motel room in Arkansas and "Drive" as the vehicle-themed paternal tribute that felt right to write when he lost his dad.
He talked about his songs in a way that anchored them to the particulars of the life he's lived. Even the honky-tonker "Don't Rock the Jukebox" apparently had its origins in a rickety jukebox he encountered in a bar.
If Jackson's clean, laid-back singing sounded a tad bit more leathery than usual, it was, he mentioned more than once, because the Tennessee ragweed was wreaking havoc on his throat.
"I'm doing the best I can with it," he promised.
He's a practiced pro, to be sure. But he took care not to let his smooth performance get too smooth. For him, that's an essential part of the art of it.
Jackson returns to the museum's 800-seat CMA Theater on Oct. 22 for a second sold-out artist-in-residence performance.
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