Alan Jackson was not one of the obvious ‘stars’ of the ‘Class of ’89’. His debut single, ‘Blue Blooded Woman’, was released in 1989 to very modest success, and it was not until the following year, when Here In The Real World was released, with the best songs from the album making a genuine impact at radio, that Alan became a star. Even then, I don’t think many people would have predicted that of all the ‘Class of ’89’, Alan Jackson would be the only one still consistently scoring hits on country radio in 2009. In the liner notes to Here In The Real World, Alan is quoted, modestly saying, “You know that country song, ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?’ I don’t know whether I can fill ’em, but I’d sure like to try ’em on.” In retrospect, they seem to have fit pretty well.
Alan was actually one of the first artists signed to Arista Records’ country imprint, which was newly created in 1989, no doubt to capitalize on the burgeoning success of country music in the aftermath of the neotraditional breakthrough of acts like Randy Travis in the previous few years. His debut album was recorded during 1989, but not released until early 1990. It was eventually certified double platinum, and coupled with the successful radio performance of later singles, helped to win Alan the title of the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Male Vocalist in 1990 (following Clint Black).
Alan wrote or co-wrote every song on the album, with the exception of the opening track, the pleasant but unremarkable ‘Ace Of Hearts’. It is hard to tell why this was thought worthy of inclusion, because it does not appear to add much to the record. Perhaps it was thought to be potentially radio-friendly insurance, in case Alan’s own songs did not find favor at radio.
The first single, ‘Blue Blooded Woman’, is one of those songs about a wealthy woman who unaccountably falls for the redneck narrator. This theme was not the tired cliche it is twenty years on, and the lyric is neatly put together (by Alan, producer Keith Stegall and veteran writer Roger Murrah), but already reeked of wishful thinking. Would any girl who shops at Saks Fifth Avenue, really be seriously interested in the guy who lives ‘in Wal-Mart fashion’? It is however rendered an enjoyable track by a vivacious production. It would probably be a massive hit today (unless it was rejected as too country musically), but radio was a little choosier in its material in 1989, and the single failed to crack the top 40.
Arista then released the two instant classics on the album as singles, and
the reward was a pair of top five hits. Alan’s breakthrough hit was the album’s title track, written with Mark Irwin – a gorgeous yearning sad song of resignation, as the protagonist learns that life isn’t like the movies with a guaranteed happy ending, set to a beautiful tune, ornamented with some lovely fiddle and steel guitar. George Jones, cited by Alan in his nod to ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes’, implicitly included Alan in that company by picking this as one of the songs he included on Hits I Missed… And One I Didn’t, his 2005 covers record.
The next single was an even better song – the utterly beautiful, part-spoken ‘Wanted’, which stands as one of Alan’s best written songs and finest vocal performances. Alan and co-writer Charlie Craig crafted a metaphorical conversation in which the narrator places an advertisement for his loved one to forgive him, with carefully constructed, low-key verses and a soaring chorus.
These two songs both made #3 on Billboard, and the follow-up, ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’, an engaging autobiographical mid-tempo piece about life as a struggling musician, went one place better. The fifth and final single, ‘I’d Love You All Over Again’, was a tender ballad inspired by Alan’s ten-year marriage, and this was his first #1 hit (although ‘Wanted’ and ‘Here In the Real World’ are both better songs, and better remembered today). As befits so personal a lyric, it was one of the songs Alan wrote without outside assistance.
Another very personal lyric Alan wrote alone was ‘Home’, the first in a series of tributes to his parents he has produced over the years. It is both sweet and true, and was probably a little too specific for radio play, despite the very singable chorus. The album is filled out by a selction of mid to up-tempo tracks which are pleasant, and would have been reasonably radio-friendly, but which are not that memorable. ‘Short Sweet Ride’ is lifted by some fine fiddle playing from Rob Hajacos; ‘She Don’t Get the Blues’ offers a lightly bluesy picture of a heartbroken femme fatale’; and ‘Dog River Blues’ has a little story about a failed marriage which could do with some more details to flesh it out.
The production by Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks is solidly country and sympathetic to Alan’s voice, a long way from the flashy production offered on most of today’s debut albums. It is not the best album Alan Jackson has ever made, or his most commercially successful, but it did allow him to set out his stall as a genuine country singer-songwriter who combined a common touch with the ability to craft a good song, and launched a career still in full swing twenty years later. It is still worth checking out, and readily available.