The title and cover make it clear what this is: Alan Jackson’s bluegrass album. It’s not that significant that a country star of the ‘80s and beyond is taking a try at the style (look at the various stylistic trips Vince Gill has been on, for example). The surprise is that a star who is still having great commercial success (#1 country hit singles as recently as 2008, plus some Top 20 and Top 10 singles since) would alternate commercial country projects with more humble genre exercises – traditional gospel albums (two Precious Memories volumes, in 2006 and 2013), a sophisticated, jazz-ish collection of love songs (2006’s Like Red on a Rose) and this straight ahead take on bluegrass. It would have been less surprising for a country superstar of the past, but these days he’s occupying a unique role for an artist who on the surface is so generally buttoned-down he wouldn’t likely be mistaken for an innovator.
Jackson has said a bluegrass album was originally what he wanted the Allison Krauss-produced (and still quite interesting) Like Red on a Rose to be. He’s also said he’s wanted to make a bluegrass album for 15 years. Now, here it is; plain and simple. It’s not a hybrid take on bluegrass but a purposely traditional one, while still carrying his musical personality… which means it’s a hybrid of sorts after all, but an unshowy, natural-feeling one.
Jackson is backed by banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass – it’s in the instrumentation that the ‘bluegrass’ lies, partly, but also in how they play and the general tone of the album, which allows ample space for the musicians to play. The first song is over six minutes long, the last one close to six, and all of them allow not just for solos by the musicians but also a general sense of space. There is wind blowing through these songs, a pleasant but bittersweet wind that speaks to the outdoors and the passing of time. The space within the songs serves to heighten the melancholy atmosphere. For perhaps the best example, listen to the tender “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”.
Another exemplary use of space, at a somewhat faster pace, more hopeful tone and shorter length, comes in Jackson’s take on “Wild and Blue”, a great hit for John Anderson in 1982 (written by John Scott Sherrill). Jackson sings that song in a somehow elegant way that doesn’t belie the rusticity. This is a bluegrass album, emphasis on the word blue. Five of the 14 songs contain that word in their title. Those and most of the others carry it in feeling, too.
The first song is about traveling down a long, hard, seemingly infinite road of sadness and bad choices, carrying the hope that he might go back home. As he voices that notion of going back home, he might be winking, as Jackson carries the general sense here that he sees this music as his roots, as tied to where he’s from (a feeling he carried, in a different way, on the Precious Memories albums, especially the first one). A few of the songs carry geography in them, including “Appalachian Mountain Girl” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, both written by Jackson. (For the record, the latter mountain range is considered part of the former; both have southernmost points in Jackson’s home state of Georgia, though not quite stretching down to his home town of Newnan.)
Other songs touch on rural settings lyrically, like “Blacktop”, though its narrator is thankful for modernization if it means he doesn’t have to breathe in dust. It may go without saying that all of the songs musically touch on both rural settings and specifically Southern ones.
There’s a certain looking-back here, not just to the roots of bluegrass, but back within Jackson’s career. He redoes his 1994 song “Let’s Get Back to Me and You” as bluegrass, and it feels quite natural in that setting. Two songs were written by one or both of the duo the Wrights, who were featured on Jackson’s 2004 album What I Do. Overall, the album feels nostalgic for all sorts of pasts, while at the same time sounding surprisingly un-nostalgic for a genre exercise by a star who is often likely to have a word like veteran in front of his name.
It again goes back to the treatment of these songs, the ways the playing and recording puts us in the moment and leaves space for us to fill in the blanks. That’s true whether he’s singing a light love song like “Let’s Get Back to Me and You” or something more serious and grave like “Blue Side of Heaven” or the six-minute “Way Beyond the Blue”, a love song where he sounds driven to love in an obsessive, even mythological way.
A balance between the eternal and the ephemeral lives within these songs, along with one between the sweet and the sad. There is a lot of death on this album, but for the country/bluegrass genre, his approach is less morose than matter-of-fact, even sensitive and sweet about it. Maybe this is related to the creativity that can come within constraints, but some of the Jackson-written songs (he wrote eight of the 14) seem much stronger than the song’s he written on the more commercial-leaning of his recent albums. The album ends not with an original but with “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. That might be a crowd-pleasing move, but more likely comes from Jackson’s fandom of the genre – i.e. ‘If I’m going to do a bluegrass album, you have to let me sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky”‘. He also uses the song to thank his musicians partway through, a slightly hokey move that also reinforces the live, in-the-moment feeling that the album possesses, a feeling that helps greatly to propel the album towards greatness.