Album Review: Alan Jackson — The Bluegrass Album
While pickin’ against the clock is the chosen way of many a bluegrass band, country great Alan Jackson has shown a knack for taking his sweet time. Rather than racing towards finish lines or pushing the boundaries of the genre, the self-professed “singer of simple songs” seems to relish every note, every solo break and every chord change that goes into his bluegrass debut album, a 14-song collection (eight of them Jackson originals) dubbed simply The Bluegrass Album.
Rather than utilizing the perhaps-to-be-expected crop of Nashville-based studio musicians, Jackson worked with his long-time guitarist Scott Coney to pull together a different but equally fantastic group of highly respected, award-winning bluegrass musicians, the majority of which reside far from Music Row. Backing him both in studio and in his live shows, are, in addition to Coney on acoustic guitar, Sammy Shelor (banjo), Adam Steffey (mandolin), Tim Crouch (fiddle), Tim Dishman (bass), Rob Ickes (Dobro), and vocalists Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby.
Jackson’s reverence for traditional bluegrass shines through in original songs like “Blue Side of Heaven,” and “Mary,” a tribute of love, praise and assurance to the “sweet wife,” who chose him “out of all of this world.” Perhaps feeling freed from the constraints of mainstream country radio, Jackson has clearly cut songs for the sheer love of music. For instance, in a move that it might inhibit radio airplay but is sure to be appreciated by listeners, Jackson takes six verses and roughly seven minutes to journey through “Long Hard Road,” a song that, true to its title, covers the ups, downs and in-betweens of human life.
In the face of the current overload of country chart-toppers celebrating dirt roads and all that happens along them, Jackson shares his own take in “Blacktop,” an album highlight that, complete with video, should have no problem crossing over to become a refreshing country hit. To be sure, great songs can fit into more than one genre pocket, as heard in the album’s grassed-up versions of the John Anderson hit, “Wild and Blue,” and Jackson’s own resurrected song, “Let’s Get Back to Me and You.” “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” is possibly the perfect traditional bluegrass song, complete with elements of young love gained, cherished, lost to Heaven, and mourned – all centered around mountains, of course, and a front porch.
If there’s a song in which Jackson pushes the boundaries of bluegrass even slightly, it’s “Way Beyond the Blue,” a Mark D. Sanders/Randy Albright/Lisa Silver song. Surely destined to be a favorite regardless of genre definitions, the song’s music pulls listeners deep into its groove, where these musicians showcase their substantial chops – each mashing out the blues expertly and leaving us all begging for one more note … just one more break.
“Appalachian Mountain Girl” gives another example of Jackson’s ability to put a fresh spin on the much-too-common subject of mountain girls in bluegrass music. Powerful lyrics keep the song from crossing over into the cliché including, “Sometimes the wind will blow just right / I think I can smell / The flowers that lined the road / That led me to this hell.”
Revealing his own musical taste and background, Jackson includes genre classics such as “There Is a Time” performed by The Dillards (The Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show) and also covered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the Bill Monroe, waltz-time “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” In a classy move, Jackson takes time mid-song to publicly thank the musicians, engineers and producers who support him in the album’s effort. As the musicians surround his deep baritone voice with a long, slow jam, he thanks them each by name, concluding with a statement to listeners at large: “I’ve wanted to make this bluegrass album for a long time. I’m proud to finally get the chance to do it. Hope y’all enjoy it and thanks for listening.”
And that sums it up. Alan Jackson, a purist country star still current in his own genre, has shown courage, diversity and talent with The Bluegrass Album. Clearly much more to him than a token to add to his shelf, it’s pure, three-chords-and-the-truth bluegrass that a variety of music fans will eagerly embrace.
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