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Unprecedented growth and the resulting influx of new artists and influences have left the Nashville powers-that-be scratching their heads trying to figure out just what is and what is not "country."
Then there's Alan Jackson. Like a calm at the center of a raging storm, the long, tall Georgian has displayed an uncanny ability to quietly mosey his way through the confusion directly to the top of the charts with songs that are - and there's no debate here - as country as country gets.
His rise to super stardom has paralleled the country boom, and his heartfelt honky-tonk music and phenomenal success have served as a consistent reality check for a format in transition. All of which makes "The Greatest Hits Collection," Jackson's first-ever career retrospective, such a powerful and revelatory listening experience. Hearing all these hits in a row - from the heartrending balladry of Jackson's 1990 breakthrough hit, "Here In The Real World" to the rapid-fire barroom breakdown of the recent " Don't Even Know Your Name," is a vivid reminder of the side path this artist has cleared for undiluted country here in the `90s.
Like Hank Williams in the `50s, Merle Haggard in the `60s, John Anderson in the `70s, and Randy Travis in the `80s, Jackson stands tall today as a beacon for the simple truths and homespun values that have always been the very heart of country music. He's also that rare performer who's learned to enjoy his success without ever letting it get the best of him.
"Recently I've been looking back at the production part of my show, and realized that it's been getting bigger every year - more lights, more video, more staging. I started wondering where all this was going, so now I've started going backwards a little. I don't dance, and I don't swing from ropes, all I do is stand there," Jackson says with an easy laugh. "I think in a way it's harder to entertain by just singing and trying to get my songs across." Anybody who's seen him in concert lately will testify to Jackson's leaner-and-meaner, no-nonsense live shows, but that instinctive knack for whittling things down to their essence becomes crystal clear in his songs.
Whether he's writing about his own roots ("Chattahoochee"), celebrating his deep love for honky-tonk tradition ("Don't Rock The Jukebox," "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow"),or paying homage to his heroes ("Midnight In Montgomery"), Jackson's songs are at once highly personal and totally universal. "As far as getting something out of my music, other than people relating to it, the writing has been the most important part for me," Jackson says. "Of all the things I've done, places I've been and awards I've won over the past few years, I still get more excited when I sit on the bus and write a good song.
It's a whole rush to do something you just created and have people like it. That's been real gratifying." Writing songs and making great records that stand the test of time has always been the goal of Jackson and producer Keith Stegall throughout all four of his multi-platinum-selling albums. Although Jackson, the consummate songman, is responsible for sixteen of the generous 20-song set, he appreciates the incredible talent pool of songwriters in Nashville.
Included here, of course, is the most talked about country single of the year, "Gone Country," which was written by veteran Nashville tunesmith Bob McDill. Highlighted on this collection, along with the seventeen career hits are three carefully selected bonus tracks.With the rollicking, Cajun-flavored "Tall, Tall Trees," the album's leadoff single, Jackson salutes two more of Music City's finest - Roger Miller and George Jones. "I definitely have respect for all those great writers," Jackson says. "I found "Tall, Tall Trees" in a box full of tapes.
All that was written on this tape was, "Roger Miller Song," and it was obviously from an old record - just twin fiddles and a screechy sound. But that song kept haunting me and stuck in my head. Then we found out George was a co-writer on it. I was a little afraid to do it, but when it comes on the radio by God, it'll stand out, I guarantee ya!". "I'll Try," a newly written ballad, stands right up alongside classic Jackson love songs like "(Who Says) You Can't Have It All" and "I'd Love You All Over Again," while "Home," another Jackson original from his debut album, rounds out the collection.
It's another one of those songs the singer just couldn't leave behind. The lyrics, like all of Jackson's best, come directly from his own life and straight from his heart. "Home has always been a special song for me," Jackson says. "I wanted it to be a single from my first album, but Joe Diffie came out with a song by the same title, at exactly that time. Once his had finished on the charts, I was onto the next album, so it got lost. But I still sing `Home' in the show now and then, and I've always hoped it might end up somewhere. So here it is."Maybe that's the real reason Jackson's music means so much to so many and why "The Greatest Hits Collection" packs such a musical and emotional wallop - a great song has always been and will always be this country singer's first priority. For all of his fame and multi-platinum fortune, Alan Jackson has never strayed far from home.
There is an easy going confidence about Alan Jackson. It is the humble demeanor of a blue-collar gentleman raised in the rural South that reveals itself in his mannerisms as well as in his baritone drawl. In an age when people buy flashy cars to impress total strangers on the highways of life, Jackson bears the sensibilities of his Newnan, Georgia hometown that say the only opinions that matter are those of the folks who know you best. There is no trace of the swagger one would Expect from a recording artist who has sold over 21-million albums, won several dozen awards and performed at countless standing-room-only shows.
So how did Alan Jackson make traditional country music and values translate to a decidedly 90s audience? The answer is in the songs. Since "Here In The Real World" shot to the top of the charts in April of 1990, all but three of Jackson's singles have reached No. 1. That's 20 No. 1 hitsin six years and he wrote or co-wrote all but four of them. More than theincredible concentration of hits, Alan Jackson's singles are significant for their content and composition. Country to the core, Jackson's songs reflect the plain-spoken wisdom of his small-town upbringing. More than any other one factor it is the honesty of simple truths and time-worn tradition that draws listeners to Alan's music.
Everything I Love, Alan Jackson's seventh album, is a perfect illustration of the singer-songwriter's success. Put the album on and the first song, "Little Bitty," strikes you as an instant hit. In fact, Jackson's infectious take on the Tom T. Hall cut is the album's first single. The title track has the sweeping power of many of Jackson's ballads. "Buicks To The Moon," the third cut, is built on a small-town colloquialism that is bound to ring true with country music fans and "Between The Devil And Me" is the album's emotional pinnacle. "There Goes" has the easy-going, upbeat swing of many of Jackson's previous self-penned hits.
The next five songs ("A House With No Curtains," "Who's Cheatin' Who," "Walk On The Rocks," "Must've Had A Ball" and "It's Time You Learned About Good-Bye") also serve to make his first all-new album in nearly three years a fitting follow-up to 1995's The Greatest Hits Collection, which sold over 3 million units and spawned three No. 1 singles. In fact, all of Jackson's five previous non-holiday albums are multi-platinum and even the Christmas collection, Honky Tonk Christmas is approaching platinum. That kind of success is heady stuff, but it is important not to read too much into his super-stardom. After all, Alan Jackson is, as he is quick to point out, just a guy who sings.