Alan Jackson’s previous studio outing was Angels and Alcohol in 2015. A six-year gap between albums is not so unusual these days, but it’s a long hiatus for him, a performer who has released 18 mainstream country albums since the late 1980s (plus two volumes of gospel music and two Christmas albums) at an average rate of one every couple of years. Between 1992 and 2015, he had 11 number one country albums (twelve, if you count one of the gospel outings, fourteen if you include two of the greatest hits compilations). Suffice it to say, this is a long, consistently successful career.
Needless to say, he barely tickles the bottom of the charts over here in the UK. Most of those number one albums have scraped in around the 190s in the UK, with many of them not troubling the charts at all. Angels and Alcohol managed a respectable #85 [whoops and hollers from the back].
This interests me as an Americanist, because you know that while Brad Paisley or Tim McGraw might be able to fill the O2 for a night, Alan Jackson (along with Vince Gill – 15 top 10 country albums in the same period) would not. When I attended my one and only Country 2 Country festival in 2013, I was quietly fuming that Gill performed to a half empty venue because most of the audience stayed in the bar.
Of course, you don’t need to be selling Rhianna/Taylor Swift quantities to hit the top 10 in the Country charts. Shift just under a couple of hundred thousand units and you’re there. Still, the fact remains that the If You Don’t Like Alan Jackson – Fuck You t-shirt is a thing that exists, and yet most UK so-called music so-called lovers have never heard (of) him.
All of which preamble brings me to his latest outing, Where Have You Gone, released May 14 2021, as of this writing (23 May), it is not featuring in the Billboard Country chart, but it has made #1 in the UK Country albums chart, and #19 in Scotland.
I periodically take the temperature of America by means of what’s happening in country music. It’s fair to say that the top 50 Billboard chart is not exactly volatile, so the slow shifting sands of what’s currently popular can be read like chicken entrails.
Alan Jackson’s The Greatest Hits Collection is currently at #41, and has been on the chart for 128 weeks. So it’s not that Jackson has been forgotten in the six years since he last released something new. Shania Twain’s Greatest Hits (#45) has been there for 176 weeks.
First, let’s count the women in the top 50.
Women occupy 11 positions in the top 50 [whoops and hollers].
Two of those positions are Carrie Underwood. Two are Miranda Lambert. Three of them are Taylor Swift [whoops and hollers dying away].
Seven. There are seven women in the Country Top 50, including Shania Twain, who has released five studio albums in 28 years.
Static, as I say.
The #1 position has been held for 15 weeks by a character named Morgan Wallen. And he’s your avatar for Trump’s America. In the past year, he’s been arrested for disorderly conduct, bumped from Saturday Night Live for ignoring Covid protocols, and captured on video using a racial slur.
Fifteen weeks at number one. Wikipedia notes,
Despite the controversy, Wallen’s music experienced a surge in commercial success following the incident.
Not despite the controversy, Wikipedia. Not despite.
His previous album is currently at #6 on the chart, and has been on the chart for 154 weeks, just 20 fewer weeks than Eagles’ not-a-country-album Hotel California, which was released in 1977.
So it’s interesting to me that Alan Jackson’s new record hasn’t entered the Top 50 yet.
Alan Jackson has largely steered clear of controversy. He released the song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” in the wake of September 11 2001, but he has been notably quiet during the last six years of edge-of-civil-war madness. I imagine he’s fairly conservative, but he hasn’t called for the [Dixie] Chicks’ heads, as far as I know.
I’m not going to look too deeply into this.
One of the things I love about Jackson is his conservatism when it comes to music. Pick any of his records from his long career, and you’ll find the same, high quality production sound, the same instrumentation, and the same voice. Paul McCartney he is not. It’s timeless. I’m fine with chameleon-like reinvention and pushing things forward (Beatles, Dylan, Taylor Swift etc), but I also know that when I put on an Alan Jackson record, it’s going to sound like this, and it’s a nice place to spend time, a comfort blanket in uncertain times.
So how is Where Have You Gone?
It’s very good. It sounds great. As I’ve noted before on this blog, Jackson doesn’t go in for Loudness Wars musical production. Everything sounds perfect, with such great musicianship. The melodies sound familiar a lot of the time, and this is because he is someone who works within a a defined form, an artist with a deliberately limited palette. Drums, bass, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, steel guitar, Hammond B3, piano, banjo. And the personnel includes names I’ve seen in the credits on country albums for decades: Eddie Bayers (who played drums with Dolly Parton as far back as 1980), Paul Franklin (more than 500 albums), Stuart Duncan (who has played fiddle with everyone from Dolly Parton to Robert Plant), Brent Mason (ACM Guitarist of the Year every year between 1993 and 2001), Glenn Worf (not the one from Star Trek but the one who has played bass with everyone from Bryan Adams to Mark Knopfler to Tammy Wynette).
Where Have You Gone is also very long. The pent-up 21-song collection includes 15 written by Alan Jackson himself, which makes you wonder if he wasn’t just waiting out the Trump years. This does not seem like someone who took a career hiatus because of writer’s block.
The title track is a kind of complaint about the state of country music, which you’d expect from someone like Jackson. At the same time, a glance at that top 50 (and the #1 artist), and you have to admit he has a point. Then there are the usual range of drinking songs, love songs, and songs about his family. One of the things I admire about Jackson has been the way he writes songs about his daughters. Cheese on toast, of course, but with such a high level of quality control that they actually end up being really good. Back in the day, “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” contained a verse about teaching his daughter to drive, and this one has a couple written for his daughter’s wedding. Cheese on top of cheese on toast, of course, but if like me you have two daughters, well. There was something in both of my eyes is what I’m saying.
My standout favourite is “Where the Cottonwood Grows”, which is just a lovely melody with beautiful playing, but all of this album is a good listen, and even at over 80 minutes doesn’t seem too long.