Alan’s second album, released in May 1991, transformed him from a rising star to a fully fledged superstar, selling 4 million copies, with four of its five singles heading to the top of the charts and winning the title of the ACM Album of the Year. Alan co-wrote almost every song, the results ranging from good to great, although at times Alan seems to rely a little too strongly on the pun as inspiration. The production (from Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks) is excellent, always serving the song and artist sympathetically. The music is solid country in every note, and the songs too draw strongly on the traditions and heritage of country music, with specific tribute paid to George Jones and Hank Williams.
The title track and first single (and ACM Single of the Year) was a ‘heartbroke hillbilly”s appeal for some hurting country music, George Jones rather than the Rolling Stones (picked for the rhyme), set to some tinkling honky tonk piano, steel and fiddle, whose rhythm makes it sound cheerful despite the downbeat lyrics, written by Alan with producer Keith Stegall and veteran writer Roger Murrah:
I ain’t got nothin’
Against rock and roll
But when your heart’s been broken
You need a song that’s slow
Ain’t nothin’ like a steel guitar
To drown a memory
‘Just Playin’ Possum’, written with Jim McBride and Alan’s future manager Gary Overton, is a similarly playful take on turning George Jones records to mend a broken heart. Jones himself offers a cameo at the end (and gets thanked in the liner notes for making ‘a dream come true’, but the theme was too similar to ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ to allow it to be a single, although I like it a little better:
I could cry on my best friend’s shoulder
But there ain’t no use
I need an expert on
The pain I’m going through
So I’ll keep George on the old turntable
Til I’m over you
My personal favourite track is the second single, ‘Someday’, one of two lovely ballads Alan wrote with Jim McBride. It is an understated and gently regretful look at a failed marriage where the disillusioned wife has accepted that the “someday” he’s always promising is never going to come:
I said someday
I’ll get my life straight
She said it’s too late
What’s done is done
I told her someday
She said I can’t wait
Cause sometimes someday just never comes
The protagonist’s regret is never spelled out, but underscores every line in Alan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.
The lesser known ‘That’s All I Need To Know’ from the same partnership is almost equally beautiful, but offers a faint glimmer of hope, as the married protagonist acknowledges that the love seems to have died –
“We left love in the closet
Like it just went out of style”
He is desperate to know if there is any hope at all for their future, a question unanswered within the song, but his intense longing is palpable.
‘Dallas’, the third straight #1 from the album, was written with Keith Stegall, and is pleasant enough, but feels rather as if they came up with idea of the hook line ‘I wish Dallas was in Tennessee’, and making it refer to a woman, then writing the song around it like a creative writing exercise without truly feeling convincingly rooted in a real story.
‘Midnight In Montgomery’ was the one near-miss of the singles from this album, although it was still a big hit, peaking at #3 on Billboard. It is, however, one of Alan’s most distinctive and memorable songs. It paints an atmospheric picture of Hank Williams’ ghost “always singing there” near his grave, with its eerie minor key and evocative references to some of Hank’s songs. The equally atmospheric video won Alan his first CMA award.
The one outside composition, the beaty fluff of ‘Love’s Got A Hold On You’, came from producer Keith Stegall and Carson Chamberlain, and was the last single, again reaching #1 on Billboard. It is not a great song, but it is a sign of Alan’s popularity that even his lesser material has generally done well on radio.
Alan had been touring with Randy Travis who was a bigger star at the time, and they did some writing on the road. Randy recorded several of their co-writes to stunning effect (they provided three of the four singles from his 1991 album High Lonesome), and Alan recorded ‘From A Distance’ on this album. The subtly melancholy song has the protagonist watching his ex and her new man from a corner of the bar, and is another favorite of mine.
The album closes with two tracks written with Don Sampson, the charmingly playful ‘Walkin The Floor Over Me’, inspired by Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ and with a musical nod to it. The Jackson song takes it a little more literally by telling of a heartbroken woman in the protagonist’s upstairs apartment:
“Slowly she’s been wearing out the ceiling, walking the floor over me”
The album closes with a sincere tribute to a ‘Working Class Hero’ now facing retirement.
Don’t Rock The Jukebox helped to solidify Alan’s stardom. It is also an excellent album which still repays listening to, and is well worth getting hold of if it isn’t already in your collection.
You can listen to it on last.fm.