Tuesday, October 1, 2013

album review: 'the bluegrass album' by alan jackson

When people ask me why I listen to country music, or how they can get into country music, I point at Alan Jackson.

It's kind of hard for me to fully articulate why Alan Jackson stands out for me in terms of country singers from the 90s in a way that few of his peers do. He's a superb musician with a gift for catchy, memorable melodies and lyrics with a superb flow. He is completely unafraid to write political songs and he's intelligent enough to work to capture many layers of nuance in those songs (signified in 'Where Were You', one of only two songs that managed to properly memorialize September 11 by any artist). He's not a man who actively seems to get angry in his material, but you can tell he is the kind of man you do not screw with, as evidenced by his legendary performance at the 1999 Country Music Awards, where he switched song mid-solo from one of his own to George Jones' 'Choices', in protest of how one of the legends of country music had been pressured to trim his performance for commercials and had bowed out of the ceremony. 

And as a neotraditionalist country singer - one of the most successful at that - Alan Jackson has been fighting for decades to preserve the historical spirit and culture of the medium. Besides releasing a ton of amazing music in this vein, he also recorded with George Strait a song called 'Murder On Music Row', where he directly criticized the slide of country music towards the mainstream courtesy of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. It was a controversial song on country radio in 2000, and arguably contributed in a big way for country receding from the mainsteam in the early years of that decade (besides just being a goddamn great song that nails commentary on the genre without getting preachy). 

So really, it was only a matter of time before the lead crusader of traditional country music came back, with the slide of country, yet again, towards the mainstream. And while Chris Young has accumulated some fame and critical success, he doesn't quite have the same pull within Nashville that Alan Jackson has. And thus, I wasn't surprised in the slightest when Alan Jackson announced his new album would be titled The Bluegrass Album, one that he has been 'threatening' the country music industry that he would make for years now. 

Now, I must confess, I'm not the most familiar with bluegrass as a genre, but I know enough to get by and if I'm looking for a way into the genre, I can't think of a better introduction than that of a country legend who has been preparing for this album for nearly a decade. And thus, I chose to take a listen to Alan Jackson's The Bluegrass Album - how did it turn out?

Well, unsurprisingly, it's great. The Bluegrass Album by Alan Jackson is an incredibly solid, extremely listenable country-bluegrass album that I can recommend without qualms. Is it perfect? Not quite. Did it really blow me away or blow my mind? No, not really. But is it an example of how a legend in the industry can execute a genre shift with precise care and pull it off? You bet it is. 

It's also for that reason that I don't really have a huge amount to say about this album, because it's the kind of work that has singular purpose: Alan Jackson pulled together a group of superb musicians and they perform a bunch of bluegrass songs written by Alan Jackson and a series of very solid bluegrass covers. There really isn't much of a narrative throughline or greater story - it's more of a genre exploration by an artist who very much knows what he's doing. Particularly in the songwriting, you can tell that Alan Jackson has spent a lot of time preparing and refining and editing his material, and there's maybe only one spot on this album where I feel there's the slightest slip technically (one bad rhyme in 'Blacktop', and frankly, it's barely worth mentioning). Honestly, there are points that feel a little too polished and a little too perfect and that lose a little bit of that organic flavour, but that's a small complaint indeed.

And in terms of lyrical content, Alan Jackson proves - once again - that he's one of the best country songwriters in the industry in crafting a relatable, believable song, and there were plenty of times that I had to pull out the writer's list because I couldn't tell which songs were written by Jackson and which were covers, which is a major plus for this album's authenticity. He clearly understands how to write good bluegrass songs, and the album really comes into its own at the midpoint: after the Adam Wright (of The Wrights) penned song 'Ain't Got Trouble Now' that I really enjoyed, we get the achingly sad 'Blue Ridge Mountain Song' and the fun 'Tie Me Down'. Hell, I really liked the album opening track 'Long Hard Road' - it's the sort of song that had a bit of an edge that I didn't think Alan Jackson would be bringing to the table, and I dug the hell out of it. If I'm going to nitpick on lyrical content at all, it'd be that the sentimentality can get a little complacent at points, but then again, this is bluegrass and you expect the occasional bits of earnest corniness (also, Alan, little disappointed you went into bluegrass and didn't try for a murder ballad - I know outlaw country has never been your thing, but still...).

On instrumentation and production, I have very few issues. In particular, I really liked the banjo work by Sammy Shelor, the mandolin by Adam Steffey and Tim Crouch did an excellent job on the fiddle. But you could tell the entire group had a ton of professional skill and the solos strewn throughout the album were both authentic and were easily complex enough to impress. But it is in the instrumentation that I'll raise my biggest nitpick, and that is with the pace of the songs. I understand that a slower song might be better suited for Alan Jackson's vocal delivery (I'll come back to this), but you'd think with bluegrass the tempo would be a little faster, and I easily believe the musicians here are talented enough to play at that speed. But the bigger problem is that with a slower tempo, a few songs do drag a little, and if they increased the speed, I reckon the tracks would have flowed a little better.

But then again, Alan Jackson is a fast-spitting bluegrass singer - he's a country singer with a more measured, more controlled delivery, which also leads to my final nitpick. As much as I like Alan Jackson's delivery - and I definitely do - there were points in his vocal delivery where I feel he could have stood to try a little harder. I'm not denigrating his delivery here - it's very measured, it's very calm, it's got a real emotional swell that needs to be there - but at the same time, I feel he stuck very close to the middle of his range and he didn't often venture out of it. He definitely didn't come off like he didn't care, per se, but I think this album would have stuck with me a little stronger if he had pushed himself a little harder here.

All of that being said, The Bluegrass Album by Alan Jackson is great, and you can tell by how hard I'm hunting for potential issues and coming up short. It's incredibly solid, showing exactly how one should properly experiment within genres: with careful consideration, preparation, and a lot of passion for his subject matter, all of which Alan Jackson does have. This album easily earns its 8/10, and I'm happy to see Alan Jackson make the album he's clearly wanted to for a very long time.

Your move, mainstream country: see if you can top this.

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