Prime Cuts: Alan Jackson
In the Prime Cuts series, we’ll take a look at songs that didn’t show up on country radio, staying under the radar on records packed to the brim with memorable tunes. Album by album, we’ll point out the quiet keepers of some of our favorite artists, and hopefully these songs will reintroduce you to artists that have made a big impact on the genre and its fans – and maybe even surprise you with a few gems you missed the first time around.
Alan Jackson’s knack for producing quality songs across the entire span of his 22-year career has resulted in a long list of some of country music’s best recordings. From “Here in the Real World” and “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” to “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Remember When,” it’s easy to see how the self-professed singer of simple songs has made such an important impact on American music.
But his contributions don’t end there: Here are 15 songs from Jackson’s catalog (listen along to a Spotify playlist) that may not have shot up the charts, but established the singer as both a songwriter and an artist.
One of country music’s best debut albums, Here In the Real World introduced the world to Jackson as both a talented writer and performer. While it’s full of beautiful, wistful songs such as the title track, “Dog River Blues” is a romp of a heartbreak story set on the bank of a river full of memories. This is one of three Jim McBride co-writes on the album, and the beginning of a long partnership between the two writers.
Closing out his first record, “Short Sweet Ride” marries the fiddle with one of country music’s founding truths: “Lord, can’t a woman make a man a fool.”
“Just Playin’ Possum” may be the lesser-known King of Broken Hearts reference on 1991’s Don’t Rock the Jukebox, but Jackson’s reverent roots are just as apparent on this ode to George Jones. And lest you think it’s nothing but a name check: By 1991, Jackson was already making his mark on the new traditionalist scene with an eye to the past, and the Possum himself sings the song’s closing lines.
Jackson’s talent for portraying the regular guys was present from the beginning, along with his acknowledgement that small-town, blue-collar life isn’t all warm and fuzzies: “He knows he’s too old to really start over, besides he wouldn’t really know how.”
A weeper of a waltz, this tune played well with A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love)’s collection of heartbreak songs. Its hardest kick in the gut: when all the protagonist wants is a nice steak, he finds a piece of old wedding cake in the freezer. Ouch.
This song was also included on 2003’s Greatest Hits Volume Two…And Some Other Stuff, on a second disc of songs Jackson thought should have received more attention. Between its melancholy production and delusional lyrics, it’s easy to see why: The song’s beautiful phrasing produces some of Jackson and McBride’s best hillbilly prose, including “I guess a saner man would simply paint it/But I’m not sane and after all, it’s my wall, ain’t it?”
Jackson’s more domestic version of Merle Haggard’s “Footlights” finds the singer bracingly honest about life on the road and his relationship with fans, while the weepy steel guitar reflects the effects of life on the road on relationships at home.
Jackson recorded many Harley Allen songs, including popular singles “Between the Devil and Me” and “Everything I Love,” but this cut may be the most fun of them all. A run-in with the law provides the most amusing verse, with Jackson singing “I’m gonna sue the city about that policeman/Last night as I left the bar he stepped right on my hand/He said, ‘Are you drunk or blind?’ I said ‘Let me think’/That’s another good reason not to drink.”
If Jackson’s country music heroes weren’t evident from the material he churned out throughout the 1990s, Under the Influence left no doubt. This Bob McDill song appeared on Mel McDaniel’s 1981 album I’m Countryfied, but its straightforward observations about the end of a relationship sound like they could have come straight from Jackson’s own pen.
On the last song on When Somebody Loves You, Jackson can’t help but take a swipe at the industry he’s come to dominate. It wasn’t the first or last stand he took against the Powers That Be, but it’s probably the most upbeat. Note: It actually clocks in at 3:03.
In this charming ode that the cashier from “Hotter Than a Two Dollar Pistol” would appreciate, Jackson sounds nearly as in love with his first car as he does on any of his human love songs.
Jackson smokes his way through this scorcher with help from some fancy guitar pickin’, while the background vocals come courtesy of The Oak Ridge Boys’ Richard Sterban.
This critically acclaimed album only produced two singles on country radio, but it offered up a distinctly different look at Jackson’s creative process. He deviates from longtime producer Keith Stegall to team up with bluegrass darling Alison Krauss, who helps showcase simple, sparse lyrics such as “I make it known it’s just time that I kill/When I’m gone and without you.”
While Good Time may have suffered from too much of a good thing, Jackson scored with this throwback duet with Martina McBride.
After introducing each of this song’s breakneck-speed instrumentalists for a solo, Jackson sums it up best in the closing line: “Whew, that was good.”
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- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
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- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
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- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...