Three decades since he took off “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and Alan Jackson hasn’t stopped writing his love story for country music.
Jackson returned May 14 with “Where Have You Gone,” a new studio album where the plain-spoken wordsmith sings about fatherly love, once-in-a-lifetime loss and the barn-burnin’ honky-tonk music that remains near his heart.
The 21-song collection, Jackson’s first studio release in six years, takes listeners on a country music journey through tales familiar to those
who’ve been singing along for decades to his stories of “a lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love.”
“Man, I love real country music and those instruments and the melodies and what the songs are about,” said Jackson, a 62-year-old native of Newnan, Georgia, who entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. “That’s what it’s always been for me, and I still love that.”
Six years marks the longest period between studio releases for Jackson since he blasted into super-stardom as Arista Nashville’s flagship artist with 1990 album “Here In The Real World” – the first in a blitz of hit releases, from “Don’t Rock The Jukebox” to “Gone Country” and, of course, “Chattahoochee,” that proved essential listening for ‘90s country fandom.
Alan Jackson Tammie Arroyo / Getty Images
An extended break wasn’t intentional, he said. Jackson meant to hit Franklin’s Castle Recording Studios – “I learned a long time ago not to waste money on your own studio,” he jested — with longtime producer Keith Stegall in 2018.
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But life played a different tune for Jackson after his son-in-law died unexpectedly
in a boating accident that year at age 28.
A year removed
from his mother’s death, Jackson said the loss “just shut our life down for a while.
“It took a long time to get back to where I wanted to write and do something for a while,” Jackson said.
I don’t have to worry about coming up with something for radio. I can just do whatever I want to do. Songs that I feel like fans would like.
Still, he put pen to paper again — or melody to voice memo, as Jackson said he often sings ideas into his phone — booking studio time last spring only to be delayed by COVID-19.
He pushed through last fall, narrowing about 400 ideas into a 21-song record that features 15 tracks solely written by Jackson, a rarity in a town often driven by co-writes.
“I finally felt like writing some songs and recording ‘em,” Jackson said. He later added: “I don’t have to worry about coming up with something for radio. I can just do whatever I want to do. Songs that I feel like fans would like …
“I’ve always had a mixture of types of songs. From heartbreak to drinkin’. Songs about my family and life. Fun songs, Friday night songs and everything in-between. That’s the way all my records have pretty much been.”
Jackson opens “Where Have You Gone” with a five-minute title ballad that hears the singer surrounded by forlorn fiddle, deep-rooted steel guitar and touches of soft piano.
He sings, “Sounds from the soul, fiddle I need you/ Sweet country music, where have you gone? … The airwaves are waiting, please come back home.”
The song doesn’t aim to criticize – “everybody’s got their own thing (and) likes what they like,” Jackson said – but it reflects on “where country music has gone” as mainstream airwaves neglect traditional sounds.
“I’m such a fan of country music,” he said. “I just feel like it’s fading away, the real roots. It’s always been up and down but usually there’s just a little bit of it hanging on. Now I just feel like it’s getting further and further away, and it’s makin’ me sad.
I’m such a fan of country music. I just feel like it’s fading away, the real roots. It’s always been up and down but usually there’s just a little bit of it hanging on. Now I just feel like it’s getting further and further away, and it’s makin’ me sad.
The album continues with Jackson singing a pair of tearful wedding songs he wrote for two of his daughters (“You’ll Always Be My Baby” and “I Do”). It tugs at heartstrings on “Where Her Heart Has Always Been,” a faithful number written for his “Mama Ruth’s” funeral where Jackson sings “God reached out his tender hand and gently pulled her home with him”; and pays tribute to late outlaw legend and former tour mate Merle Haggard.
For Haggard, Jackson cut “That’s The Way Love Goes,” a Lefty Frizzell co-write that Haggard covered in the 1980s.
“I’ve been wanting to do something for Merle ever since he died,” Jackson said. “I think it’d been cut by a bunch of people but I always heard (Merle) did (“…Love Goes”) as a tribute to Lefty. … I did it kinda the same way, as a tribute to Merle.”
And Jackson’s kids didn’t just influence a pair of wedding songs on the album. He rips plenty of guitar-and-fiddle honky-tonk tunes on “Where Have You Gone,” and none may be more ready to fill dance floors than “Back” and “Beer:10.”
Both came from seeds planted by Jackson hanging around his daughters and their friends.
“I pick up crazy ideas from my kids and their friends hanging out,” Jackson said. “They’re all grown and they’ll be drinkin’ or something … (Someone) said one night that ‘It’s beer:10, whiskey:30’ and I said, ‘Sounds like a song to me.’”
I pick up crazy ideas from my kids and their friends hanging out. … (Someone) said one night that ‘It’s beer:10, whiskey:30’ and I said, ‘Sounds like a song to me.’
On “Back,” Jackson sings that “I’m bringing country back/ Back where it belongs, back on track/ I think ‘ole Hank would like it like that.”
In a roundabout way, he can also thank Justin Timberlake for the idea.
“My kids, a few years ago, they said something about that old Justin Timberlake song ‘I’m Bringing Sexy Back,’” Jackson said. “I teased ‘em one day and said, ‘Yeah, alright. I’m bringing country back.’ I wrote it as a joke for them and everybody liked it.”
But Jackson may be hanging out at home a little less in 2021. He returns to the road this summer after COVID-19 derailed touring in 2020.
Jackson said he only plays around 15-20 shows a year – “I’m about half-retired, anyway,” he said – but when he does hit the stage? Few things compare to hearing those stories told through the music he still loves.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you, it gets old going out there, travelin’,” Jackson said. “But when you walk out there and people are standing on their feet and singing just about every word to all my songs — happy and holding up a beer one minute, crying the next – it makes me feel like I’ve made some music (that’s) really touched people.”
(songwriters in parenthesis)
“Where Have You Gone” (Alan Jackson)
“Wishful Drinkin’” (Alan Jackson)
“I Can Be That Something” (Alan Jackson)
“Where the Cottonwood Grows” (Alan Jackson)
“Way Down In My Whiskey” (Alan Jackson)
“Things That Matter” (Robert Keith Stegall, Michael White)
“Livin’ On Empty” (Alan Jackson)
“You’ll Always Be My Baby (Written for Daughters’ Weddings)” (Alan Jackson)
“Where Her Heart Has Always Been (Written for Mama’s funeral with an old recording of her reading from The Bible)” (Alan Jackson)
“The Boot” (Adam Wright)
“Back” (Alan Jackson)
“Write It In Red” (Alan Jackson)
“So Late So Soon” (Scotty Emerick, Daniel Tashian, Sarah Buxton)
“This Heart Of Mine” (Adam Wright)
“A Man Who Never Cries” (Alan Jackson)
“Chain” (Alan Jackson)
“I Was Tequila” (Alan Jackson)
“I Do (Written for Daughters’ Weddings)” (Alan Jackson)
“Beer:10” (Alan Jackson)
“The Older I Get”* (Hailey Whitters, Adam Wright, Sarah Turner)
Extra Track: “That’s The Way Love Goes” (A Tribute to Merle Haggard) (Lefty Frizzell, Whitey Shafer)
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3:11 pm UTC May. 16, 2021
3:11 pm UTC May. 16, 2021