Even though his last album was a platinum selling gospel record, Alan Jackson is still best known for his likeable country honky tonk twang. After all, that’s the style that sold over 45 million records and racked up more than 30 number one hits for the man in the hat. Like Red on a Rose, however, is something altogether different again. In fact, it’s more like an Alison Krauss project with Jackson singing the lead, than an Alan Jackson record proper.
Is this a new direction for Alan Jackson, or just another one-off from a man who’s earned the freedom to try out new ideas at will? Only time will tell. Regardless, Like Red on a Rose certainly seems to be a testament to the almost lost art of growing old gracefully together.
Alan Jackson and his wife Denise were high school sweethearts. They married in 1979, and moved to Nashvile from Georgia in 1985. While Jackon worked at a cable network during the day and struggled to get that elusive break by night, his wife continued to worked as a flight attendant for Delta. And legend has it that Denise was the one who finally got Jackson his first big break, forcing a demo tape on Glen Campbell at Atlanta airport. That the Jacksons are still together today, after almost 30 years and 45 million records sold, is an achievement that Alison Krauss says informed the making of Like Red on a Rose.
“He’s a family man and his wife is always held so high,” Krauss has said. “This is not a record of young love, not a record of new love. This is a record of love that has stood the test. When picking the material out, I was thinking ‘What would I want a man to say to me? If he was sitting across the table from me, what would I want to hear him say?’”
While it was Jackson’s idea to bring in Krauss, it seems he may have got more than he bargained for. While he usually writes most of his own material, this time Krauss picked the songs, including just one of Jackson’s own and choosing to close the album with a version of Leon Russell’s exceptional and mournful “Bluebird”. Krauss also selected all the musicians and arranged all the material.
So what was the result of this meeting between a great country populist and a bluegrass performer with the voice of an angel and a record number of Grammys? Like Red on a Rose opens with the very curious “Anywhere on Earth You Are”. Despite a gentle steel whine in the distant background, this ballad is decidedly more AOR than country, and more subdued Steely Dan than Nashville. It’s a bold move that presents Jackson as a sombre business traveller and a lovelorn crooner rather than any kind of country-lovin’ trucker type. It must surely have confused the hell out of country radio. Here on Like Red on a Rose, however, it pays off handsomely, most especially when its jazz-tinged piano leads into the quite lovely matt-finished lounge blues of “A Good Imitation of the Blues”. Which leads in turn to the title track. While the lyrics of “Like Red on a Rose” are a wholeheartedly positive avowal of the kind of love that keeps a multi-millionaire entertainer with his high school sweetheart, they’re juxtaposed against a restrained and seemingly sorrowful country canvas to outstanding effect. Despite the undeniably odd opener, three tracks in, Like Red on a Rose is looking like a highly impressive collaboration.
However, there is a problem, and it becomes more evident with every subsequent number, even the admirable “Firefly’s Song”. Despite the individual quality of almost every song and performance, there’s simply not enough variation of style, rhythm or mood on Like Red on a Rose. And not a lot of laughs.
So if you’re in the mood for some quiet contemplation delivered in an easy-going romantic style by a fine country singer with just a touch of bluesy soul in his voice, then look no further. But if you’re looking for a traditional Alan Jackson record, take the time to try before you buy. I’m sure Alan Jackson won’t take it personally.