Looking back at the CMT heroes who capitalized on the ’90s country boom, Alan Jackson appears to have finished a decisive second: Garth Brooks sold more records, and put out more keepers. Right? Arista/Legacy’s 16 Biggest Hits — generous enough to trumpet Jackson’s musical diversity, canny enough to focus on his strengths, and concise enough that it feels close to definitive — attempts to tip the scales in Jackson’s favor. Over its hour run-time, the collection formulates a pretty compelling case for Jackson as his generation’s premier country artist.
The disc kicks off with “Chattahoochee”, an unimpeachable opener, to be sure. As a ripe slice of contemporary honky tonk, it still sounds just as good as it did 15 years ago; it’s Alan Jackson doing what Alan Jackson does best. Next up is “Gone Country”, which is where the aforementioned argument really heats up. More than any of his peers, Jackson seemed very aware of what country music’s makeover from a regional to mainstream force — embraced by suburbanites and Village Voice rock critics — actually meant. His response, while critical, is more thoughtful (and funny) than it is reactionary: “She’s been readin’ about Nashville and all the records that everybody’s buyin’ / Says, ‘I’m a simple girl myself / Grew up on Long Island’”.
Six years after the release of “Gone Country”, Jackson dueted with fellow neo-traditionalist George Strait on “Murder on Music Row” (which unfortunately didn’t make the cut here), a more acidic take on country carpetbaggers, including the suggestion that patron saints Hank Williams and Merle Haggard “wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio”. What both songs signify, above all else, is Jackson’s deep affection for not just steel guitars and fiddles but for the culture that spawned and embraced country music before Brooks and Shania Twain provoked broader national attention. “Don’t rock the jukebox”, he pleads on the track of the same name, “I wanna hear some Jones / ‘Cause my heart ain’t ready / For the Rolling Stones”.
“Midnight in Montgomery” stands as, perhaps, Jackson’s most solemn genuflection at the Church of Classic Country . It’s also one of the spookiest ballads ever recorded, country or otherwise, a gorgeously spare soundtrack for Jackson’s history-check ghost story. The song showcases both his seamless way with narrative (“Was on my way to Mobile / For a big New Year‘s Eve show …”), and his knack for vivid imagery (“See the stars light up the purple sky / Feel that lonesome chill”). Then, finally, in the song’s final seconds, he reveals the identity of this “drunken man in a cowboy suit”: “Midnight in Montgomery / Hank’s always singing there”.
Of course, lest we forget, Jackson’s also one heck of a country singer. His voice is warm and full, conveying, often simultaneously, humor and a certain seriousness of purpose. His take on “Mercury Blues” is a prime example of the goods he brings to the table vocally. It sounds relaxed because Jackson knows he’s damn good at what he does for a living, and it’s just urgent enough to get the point across. Which is, I guess, to say, he sounds genuinely enthusiastic — more than, say, Steve Miller — about the prospect of going downtown to buy a Mercury or two. It’s a tribute to Jackson’s spirited performance that, after considerable car commercial over-saturation, his cover’s charms remain fully intact.
This collection also offers a taste of the musical and topical ambition that marked Jackson’s late-’90s output. Off the excellent Under the Influence, Jackson’s tribute to his favorite country artists, we get “It Must Be Love” and “Pop a Top”, a couple of expert studies in honky tonk purism. The disc’s final quarter includes “Little Man”, a passionate defense of blue collar America (and sharp critique of gentrification), and “I’ll Go on Loving You”. The latter, a heartfelt paean to monogamy packaged as a Spanish-flavored seduction song, is the most boldly experimental selection here. With its spoken-word verses, including lines like “what I feel for you will remain strong and true / Long after the pleasures of the flesh”, it can’t help but register as a touch hokey. But it works, partly because Jackson sounds so sincere and partly because we all know how tricky it is to translate feelings like these into words. In a sense, it’s kind of reassuring that even a master like Jackson isn’t immune to occasional awkwardness when it comes to intimacy.
The only potential gripe regarding 16 Biggest Hits — and, obviously, this is the case with any best-of compilation — is the exclusions. “Murder”, something of a modern country landmark, should’ve probably made it on here. “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”, Jackson’s poignant 9/11 reflection, is conspicuously absent as well. And, regrettably, nothing off last year’s superb pair of releases, Precious Memories and Like Red on a Rose, made the cut. But, with 16 the operative number, what do you axe? “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow”? “Who’s Cheatin’ Who”? “Here in the Real World”? I think not. This is a fantastic collection. For longtime fans, it’s a welcome reminder of what our man does best. For non-converts, it’s a well-chosen sampling of essentials from the finest country star of the past couple decades.