Alan Jackson is one of those rare entertainers with complete creative control over his music and career. Sixty million albums sold and 35 No. 1 singles tend to do that for an artist. So consider what Alan has done over the past 18 months; he released the mainstream country record Thirty Miles West in June 2012, delivered the Gospel album Precious Memories Vol. II in March 2013 and now prepares the traditional bluegrass project, simply titled The Bluegrass Album, for release on September 24. Alan is doing what he wants, when he wants, and making incredibly honest music along the way.
The Bluegrass Album is no exception to the rich catalog Alan has created since breaking in 1989 with the multi-platinum Here In the Real World. Backed by a group of A-list Nashville pickers, Alan’s first bluegrass album stays faithful to the genre while showcasing mountain high harmonies, fancy fretwork and stories about life, love, loss and pain. And The Bluegrass Album isn’t merely a collection of standards a la “Alan Jackson Sings the Bluegrass Hits”; Alan wrote eight of the project’s 14 songs himself.
Although he’s a natural country storyteller, Alan shows instead of tells, helping listeners connect emotionally with his characters through relatable real-life events. “Blue Side of Heaven,” “Knew All Along” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” all focus on loss where descriptions like, She’d sing a little Blue Ridge mountain song/and he’d just hum along, humanize his characters. The poignant irony hidden in the loneliness of “Ain’t Got No Trouble Now” rings clear when those “troubles” turn out to be the only things worthwhile. Through the clever call-and-response on “Blacktop,” an anti-nostalgic sentiment is revealed with a coy smile. I was glad to see the blacktop, Alan sings before adding, No more dust in my eyes. The Bluegrass Album goes further than the emotions involved as Alan showcases the art of great songwriting.
Writing and arranging for the genre, Alan often keys in on melodies that mirror each other both vocally and through the accompanying instruments. The ¾-time love song “Mary” opens with a rising/falling fiddle melody that comes around again in Alan’s vocal. On the seductive, “Way Beyond The Blue,” anticipation runs high as melodies revolve. Alan’s salt of the earth drawl is completely at ease where songs like “Tie Me Down” feature exceptionally engaging vocals and Alan’s exquisite group of players fill out tracks with a palpable chemistry. The album opener “Long Hard Road” allows for introductions by way of fiery solos while “Appalachian Mountain Girl” displays some of the album’s finest musical passages. The oftentimes frenetic pacing of the genre adds immediacy to Alan’s work. The Western-feeling “There Is A Time” and toe-tappin’ “Let’s Get Back To Me And You” both benefit from arrangements that recall the songs’ themes.
Alan includes a handful of covers such as John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue” and Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” In closing the collection with the latter, Alan thanks his band and the people involved in the project one by one. Even here Alan’s humility and honesty are easily felt, and it’s this approach that has helped steer his legendary career. Because in his career and his music, Alan’s authenticity is on full display and The Bluegrass Album is no exception.
Key Tracks – “There Is A Time,” “Blacktop,” “Ain’t Got No Trouble Now,” “Appalachian Mountain Girl”