Disappointingly, it seems as though Alan Jackson may be at the end of his hitmaking career, with the poor performance of the singles from his fine last album. But unlike many fading stars, Alan has not tried trimming his music to fit the latest trends, rather he is taking the opportunity to experiment with some deliberately less commercial forms of country music, with a religious album earlier this year, and now his long-awaited bluegrass album. His collaboration with Alison Krauss some years ago was a disappointment because it wasn’t bluegrass (or very interesting); this one is very definitely the real thing – pure bluegrass, with some excellent songs from one of the most reliable artists around.
Sensitively produced by longtime producer Keith Stegall and Alan’s songwriter nephew Adam Wright, with most of the songs written by Alan in traditional bluegrass style, the result is the delight I had hoped for when I first heard of the project. A solid bluegrass band, including star names Sammy Shelor on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro and Adam Steffey on mandolin, plays beautifully throughout, with Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman providing harmonies and backing vocals. The tempo is generally slow to medium with no real barn-burning numbers, which is the only slight disappointment – but the music we do get is all so good we can’t really complain.
Most of the songs were specially written for this album, and show Alan has lost none of his creativity. He revives one of his older songs. ‘Let’s Get Back To Me And You’; this seemed like a throwaway in 1994 (on Who I Am), but the acoustic arrangement gives it new life and I much prefer it to the uninspired-sounding original.
I really like the reflective opener ‘Long Hard Road’, in which a man considers his mistakes and sins. This road is metaphorical, but in ‘Blacktop’ Alan recalls childhood on an old dirt road, and his pleasure when it was replaced with a modern surface.
‘Mary’ is a touching love song to a beloved wife with a warm vocal; it sounds very like something Don Williams would have recorded in his heyday, and Alan sounds rather like Don vocally here, too. ‘Tie Me Down’ offers the voice of a rambler persuaded to settled down when he meets that one special girl, and is another nice song.
The slow inspirational ‘Blue Side Of Heaven’ is written from the viewpoint of a dying man addressing his loved one, and has a very pretty melody and tender vocal. ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Song’ is a touching story song about true love, discovered young, and sustained alone forever by the bereaved husband after her death far too soon.
‘Appalachian Mountain Girl’ picks up the tempo, and lyrically sounds as though it could be a long-lost traditional number rather than one of Alan’s newly penned contributions.
Adam Wright composed another song sounding like an authentic old song in the rhythmic and ironic ‘Ain’t Got Trouble Now’, which is highly enjoyable. Adam and wife Shannon wrote the resigned but thoughtful ‘Knew All Along’ about coming to terms with the death of a parent.
‘Way Beyond The Blue’ is a bluesy number written by Mark D Sanders, Randy Albright and Lisa Silver. A cover of the Dillards’ ‘There Is A Time’ (from the iconic Andy Griffith Show) is one of the more up-tempo tracks, and while pleasant and a nice change of pace, is actually one of the less memorable moments for me. A plaintive ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ is taken at the original waltz-time tempo, and unexpectedly interrupted by a rundown of Alan’s thanks to the musicians and others involved with making the record.
An unusual but very welcome choice of cover is an intimate version of John Scott Sherril’s ‘Wild And Blue’, best known from John Anderson’s hit version from the early 80s. Alan’s version is far tamer, sounding almost cosy compared to Anderson’s raw intensity, but the lovely acoustic arrangement and Alan’s kindly vocal (nicely backed by the harmony singers) emphasize the safe harbour the protagonist offers his troubled lover, where Anderson’s edgier vocal interpretation gave the woman’s desperation a more central role.
Releasing the record on Alan’s own ACR Records with distribution by EMI has allowed Alan free reign artistically, which is excellent news for the discerning listener. The artwork, however, while quite stylish, comes across as cheap, with no photographs apart from one tiny one of the entire team in the recording studio on the back page of the booklet in which no one is actually identifiable – you can only guess which Alan in by the hat, and good luck with anyone else. Luckily, it’s the music that matters, and this is an excellent, timeless album which offers solace for those fleeing in horror from today’s commercial mainstream. It is an essential purchase.