ALAN JACKSON: Life’s Work on the Neon Rainbow

Alan Jackson

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“I’m a meat and potatoes man,” Alan Jackson sang on the opening track of 2000’s When Somebody Loves You, and while the song wasn’t his-chalk that one up to Harley Allen and John Pennell-the Georgia native drawled his way through invocations of fried taters, cold beer, lightnin’ bugs and hound dogs so personably that it was easy to take each “it’s just who I am” refrain as literal truth.

Alan Jackson

“I’m a meat and potatoes man,” Alan Jackson sang on the opening track of 2000’s When Somebody Loves You, and while the song wasn’t his-chalk that one up to Harley Allen and John Pennell-the Georgia native drawled his way through invocations of fried taters, cold beer, lightnin’ bugs and hound dogs so personably that it was easy to take each “it’s just who I am” refrain as literal truth.

Mostly, though, Jackson’s meat and potatoes were home-cooked in songs that bore his name alone, or that of co-writers. Right from the outset of his 1989 debut, Here in the Real World, his name was almost always on at least half an album’s songs. And while the number of “outside” songs rose between 1989 and 2000, so did Jackson’s solo writing efforts; by 2002 and the chart-topping Drive, eight of the album’s songs were his and his alone, rounded out by three outside numbers and a lone co-write. This at a time when country singer/songwriters were fading from the charts, and more successful stars were relying heavily on Music Row writers, Alan Jackson seemed to be an increasingly rare artist-one who could convincingly fill albums with his own songs while remaining not just commercially viable, but wildly successful, with 42 million RIAA-certified sales to date.

But where some might have stayed in a groove that appeared to be both artistically satisfying and financially rewarding, Jackson chose-or maybe better, wandered onto-a different path. That might not have been immediately clear; after all, his next release was a traditionally oriented Christmas set, making a dearth of originals appear natural, but 2004’s What I Do had more outside material than any previous album. It was followed by the all traditional, all gospel Precious Memories (2006). That same year, Jackson reached out to Alison Krauss for production of the glistening and hard-to-characterize Like Red on a Rose, where his single contribution was almost lost among a dozen songs by others, including several from Krauss favorite Robert Lee Castleman.  The album was generally hailed as artistically compelling, but it also was, in some respects, the least “Alan Jackson” of them all. Where were Jackson’s songs? Where were the meat and potatoes? The answer arrived this spring-and it came with a bang-when Jackson released Good Time, an album packed with 17 songs. Every one of them bears no other name but AJ’s.

“The way it started was that someone said you’ve got to have a tape to showcase your singing, and you’ve got to have your own material,” Jackson says, recalling how he got started in the music industry. Born and raised in rural Newnan, Ga., he married young and fooled around with cars and odd jobs, while playing “beer joints and private parties” with a band called Dixie Steel. By the end of the ‘70s, he started thinking about heading for Nashville. It was an obvious, if daunting, choice for a young man who loved to sing the kind of songs he would later revive on his Under the Influence (1999)-stuff that’s now called “classic,” but at the time was simply what was hitting big on the radio. Over the years, country had become a genre so centered in Nashville that instead of building a local following and then parlaying it into regional success before signing with a label, most aspiring artists would simply head from the local honky-tonks or American Legion halls directly to Music City, hand out tapes and hope for the best.

“Once I [realized] that I had to have original material to sing, I wrote some things and went into a studio in Atlanta. A guy I knew helped me put them down-just guitars and some bass, really. And that’s what I had in my hand when I came to Nashville.”

Modest as Jackson says it was, the tape was enough to crack the door when his wife, Denise-then working as a flight attendant-encountered Glen Campbell in an airport terminal. “She said I was a singer/songwriter,” Jackson recalls, “and he gave her a business card for a little publishing company he had on Music Row. A week or two later, I went to Nashville and knocked on his door…and the long and the short of it was, they hired me at $50 a week to write for them. They didn’t pitch my songs or anything like that; I just wrote stuff, and at the same time, they were trying to help me get a record deal.”

Campbell’s company made the effort, but not much happened. “It went on for four or five years,” Jackson recalls. But while they were frustrating, those years weren’t wasted. “I was introduced to a lot of people,” he says. “I wrote with Jim McBride and a lot of different writers, and that helped me get my foot in the door. We’d do demos, so I’d be getting my voice on tape and people would hear it. I wound up doing a lot of demo singing for other people.”

Still, though Jackson would periodically find a producer interested in working with him, it never seemed to work out (“they’d want me to cut other people’s songs, and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do”). Until finally, he convinced Keith Stegall, then riding high as a producer on the strength of Randy Travis’s Storms of Life, to produce some of his own demos.

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