Album Review: Alan Jackson — Thirty Miles West
It’ll be authentic. It’ll be spare, but heavy on the steel guitar. It’ll have a handful of self-penned songs that speak to his roles as a father and husband, yet expertly navigate unrequited and lost love.
You could safely say all of that without even hitting play, but then you’d be missing out on 13 of the year’s best songs – and where’s the fun in that?
Thirty Miles West is a familiar trip down a dirt road punctuated with sonic versions of both potholes and picturesque views. Jackson pulls from a well-known cast of songwriters, betting on the brilliance of songwriters such as Guy Clark, Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride to round out six of his own lyrical contributions.
The album’s title pulls from Jackson’s childhood hometown’s distance from the Dixie Highway, which plays a starring role in its own song. Fellow Georgian Zac Brown joins in on the reverential romp, a how-to manual saluting a small, Southern town without falling into a cliché-ridden hole of Skoal rings and pickup trucks. Over the course of seven and a half minutes, Jackson handily brings to life what makes these places so special: “Had rabbit tobacco growing on the roadside/Rolled it up and we smoked it down/It don’t do much but it makes you feel big/When you’re ten years old in a tiny town.”
Those expertly crafted moments also appear in “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song,” “Talk Is Cheap” and “Nothin’ Fancy,” an apt description of both the album and the artist. Throw a dart at the track list, and you’re similarly rewarded: “Look Her in the Eye and Lie” is a little like an old friend, its guitar riffs and hook deliciously, classically Alan Jackson, while “Life Keeps Bringing Me Down” makes hard times sound like a good time.
But even amongst the standard Jackson fare, two songs catapult into the vault of Jackson’s best-ever recordings. Single “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” stands against his classics like “Monday Morning Church” or “Here in the Real World,” its combination of sadness and acceptance a testament to both nephew Adam Wright and Jay Knowles’ lyrics and Jackson’s straightforward performance.
But the hidden gem on Thirty Miles West quietly smolders on the back half of the album. “She Don’t Get High Anymore,” written by Clint Daniels, Kylie Sackley and Jeff Hyde, is a ghostly reminder of “I’ll Go On Loving You,” its undulating guitar intro prefacing one of Jackson’s best interpretations of his career.
Not everything, however, about this collection is same old, same old. This album is the first after Jackson’s departure from Arista Nashville, marking the debut under his own Alan’s Country Records in partnership with EMI Records Nashville. And after playing the part of the wise older gentleman in Zac Brown Band’s “As She’s Walking Away,” the artist seems to have fully moved into hazy, old guard territory, full of respect and critical attention but shorter on automatic radio adds and explosive commercial success.
But happily, no outside factors seem to have altered Jackson’s distinct sound and approach to country music. Nothing fancy. Just one of country music’s best.
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