Alan Jackson, traditional country's unwilling torchbearer
By Bill Friskics-Warren
FEBRUARY 28, 2000: By now, pretty much everyone who follows country music has seen or heard about the stink that Alan Jackson made during the CMA awards last September. Halfway through his remake of Jim Ed Brown's barroom weeper "Pop a Top," Jackson deep-sixed the show's script and sang a few lines from George Jones' "Choices," one of five records nominated for Single of the Year. Jackson was protesting the CMA's request that Jones perform an abridged version of "Choices" on the telecast, an offer that the 68-year-old honky-tonker refused after learning that officials promised a handful of hot young stars the full three to four minutes they needed for their hits.
"I thought it was stupid that the CMA wouldn't let George do his whole song," Jackson explained, sitting in his manager's office, a month or so after the incident. "George wasn't some new artist nominated for Single of the Year; he's a living legend who's been making records for 40 years." Jackson's message at the CMAs was clear: Music Row, in its quest for a bigger piece of the youth market, has mortgaged its birthright. The irony of course was that many of the record execs and A&R reps who shot up out of their seats to applaud as Jackson finished his number were the very sellouts he was taking to task.
Jackson's stunt at the CMAs was downright insurgent--punk, by country standards. It certainly was the most controversial thing to go down on the vanilla awards show since 1975, when Charlie Rich took his cigarette lighter to the envelope that named John Denver Entertainer of the Year. Yet unlike Rich's defiant, off-the-cuff display, Jackson's gesture at the CMAs was no act of caprice. For a guy who seems more at home with his boats and cars than in the limelight, such a move took forethought and resolve. It wasn't all Jackson had to say about the state of country music either, but rather the first of three public statements that are establishing him as the torch-bearing traditionalist of his generation.
The second came three weeks after the CMAs, when Jackson released Under the Influence, an album of covers that pays tribute to his honky-tonk heroes. By its very existence, the disc, which includes faithful recreations of hits by Jones and Haggard, John Anderson and Gene Watson, impugns the pop-pandering that now defines Music Row. The third statement came last November, when Jackson went into the studio with George Strait to cut "Murder on Music Row," a single that Jackson says Strait's label, MCA Nashville, will ship to radio this spring. Written and first recorded by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, "Murder" goes beyond neo-trad flag-waving to out-and-out finger-pointing:
"Steel guitars no longer cry and you can't hear fiddles play/With drums and rock 'n' roll guitars mixed right up in your face/The Hag wouldn't have a chance on today's radio/Since they've committed murder down on Music Row."
A rallying cry, to be sure, but Jackson downplays his role as a catalyst for what could be the first stirrings of a hard-country comeback--one signaled by the emergence of such tradition-leaning young singers as Brad Paisley, Matt King, and Lee Ann Womack. "I'm not trying to put myself in the forefront of anything," he insists. "I'm just trying to do what I've always done, you know, to make good records in pretty much the style I've always made them."
Fair enough, but Jackson's recent activities reflect more than just his personal aesthetic: They dramatize the growing rift between the upbeat pop ditties that dominate country radio and the unvarnished sounds and themes associated with the honky-tonk hardwood. Even Jackson's heroes recognize as much. "If traditional country music has to have someone to carry the flag, I don't think there could be anybody better than Alan Jackson," says Gene Watson, whose gut-wrenching signature song "Farewell Party" Jackson covers on Under the Influence.
"Alan sings traditional country music, and I admire him for that," George Jones says, echoing Watson's sentiments. "What he did [at the CMAs] meant more to me than I could ever say. I was watching the show, and when he began singing 'Choices,' it moved my wife Nancy and me both to tears. He made a huge statement on my behalf, and on behalf of traditional country music, and didn't worry about what the consequences might be."
Jackson has always been the most history-conscious member of the class of '89--the group of singers, including Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Lorrie Morgan, who ignited the country boom of the early '90s. From his 1991 ode to honky-tonk music, "Don't Rock the Jukebox," to his 1994 outing of bandwagon-jumpers, "Gone Country," the approach has served Jackson well, earning him 16 No. 1 hits on the Billboard country chart. But lately, even Jackson's had a tough time getting support for his music in some country markets: His current single, "Pop a Top," stalled in the Top 10.
"There's always been a mix of both the pop and the real hard-country stuff out there, and I don't think that's ever gonna change," Jackson observes. "But I guess I feel like, in radio right now, it seems to be a little more one-sided. Radio isn't giving the real traditional music any space. I've had to fight to get some of my stuff played. And I think that when a new guy like Brad Paisley comes around, he has to work harder to get his records played."
Jackson is referring to the handful of gatekeepers who advise country stations around the nation about which 20 or so singles to slot for heavy rotation. "I don't know what's happened in the last few years," he says, alluding to consolidation within the industry, especially at radio. "But part of it could be that a lot of the radio programmers and people who affect radio playlists...aren't big fans of traditional music, or they're not familiar with it. I also suspect that they have a tendency to think that it's dated, or that nobody wants to hear songs that sound country. And in some cases they just don't like the subject matter."
Jackson cites his recent hit "Little Man" as an example of what might be considered "objectionable" by radio programmers. Some stations refused to play the Haggard-style lament because it critiques the way that big retail chains like Wal-Mart have put so many mom-and-pop shop-owners out of business. Indirectly, the song levels a similar charge at the corporatization of the music industry and the resulting homogenization of country music.
Jackson's willingness to engage in this level of commentary--indeed, the fact that he expresses his convictions at all--is the reason his fans and some of his peers consider him a torchbearer for hard-country music. Jackson may be reluctant to accept that mantle, and there's no denying that his recent work is of a piece with what he's been doing ever since he moved to Nashville in 1985. But by tapping into what's happening in the industry right now, he has ratcheted the debate up a notch while giving voice to the malaise of listeners who fall outside country's pop-leaning target demographic. And by keeping the discussion active--something that "Murder on Music Row" is sure to do well into next fall, when the CMA Awards roll around--Jackson is keeping hope alive for fans who want country's pendulum to swing back in a down-home direction.
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