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ALAN JACKSON  Country Music Singer

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Locomotives aren’t much about bluster. They’re more about power, speed, efficiency, rugged beauty, and drive. So is the career of Alan Jackson, which recently passed the 20-year signpost without the slightest stall in sight. The country music superstar cites no particular ulterior motive in naming his new album Freight Train, although he will allow that maybe there’s just the hint of a career metaphor in there. “This title just jumped out at me,” he says. “When you really think about it, man, we’ve been rolling along here for a lot of years, still going like a train.”

Momentum: you can’t beat it, and Alan Jackson’s still got it. He’s sold more than 50 million albums and had 34 No. 1 hits—three of those off his last album, 2008’s Good Time. As superstars go, he’s one of only a handful of artists who’ve been around for two decades who still regularly top the country chart. And unlike the other veteran smashmakers who can make that claim, he’s the only one who is a true country singer and songwriter, penning most of his own material.

Of course, there’s nothing nearly so unusual about his combination of celebrity charisma and artistic craftsmanship when you consider him alongside his truest forebears. “I wouldn’t want to compare myself to anybody,” Alan Jackson says. “But if I was going to say somebody I wanted to be like, of course, the two singer and  songwriters in country music that stick out to me are Hank Williams Sr. and Merle Haggard. I don’t know that there are two any better. I just don’t put myself in that category.”

Others might beg to differ, since Alan Jackson’s considerable catalog clearly positions him as a successor to these greats. He’s celebrated the common man in “Little Bitty,” “Where I Come From,” “Little Man,” and “Small Town Southern Man.” He’s spoken to the passing of generations in “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” He’s addressed mortality in “Sissy’s Song.” He’s treated the dream that country music itself represents with respect in “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and satire in “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-tempo Love Song.” He can have hits with songs as heart rendingly meaningful as “Remember When” and hilariously meaningless as “I Still Like Bologna.” He’s spoken for a nation in “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” and spoken for the nearest bar room in “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” Alan Jackson may be the only extant country superstar whose honky-tonk poetry can lead you to answer the eternal question, “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” with an unblinking, “Yup.”

After penning every number on his previous album, Alan Jackson wrote or co-wrote eight of the 12 songs on Freight Train, again showing the breadth of his emotional range. The opening “Hard Hat and a Hammer” energetically extols the satisfactions of manual labor. The comforts of long-term love and marriage get their due in the closing ballad “The Best Keeps Getting Better.” If you’re indulging a crush instead of a 30-year marriage, he’s got songs for you, too: a cynic finds unexpected love in the frisky “I Could Get Used to This Lovin’ Thing,” which adds a steel guitar to a Tennessee Two-style boom-chicka-boom rhythm (speaking of trains). But heartbreak finds its way into the set, too, notably in a cover of the 1970s Vern Gosdin hit “Till the End,” which unites Alan Jackson with fellow traditionalist, Lee Ann Womack.

“If I had my way, the majority of it’d be sad,” Jackson admits. “I love writing sad stuff better, whether I’m happy or sad, and they make much better records, usually, to me. The sad part about the sad songs is it’s harder to get ‘em played out there! But also, I think about the people out there whose lives are already hard enough, trying to make a living. Everybody wants to hear something fun or that makes them feel good.”

If Alan Jackson has a reputation for writing songs that skew more toward contentment than sadness, that has less to do with satisfying audience expectations than just adhering to the “write what you know” ethos.

“I’m a real visual person, and when I’m writing, especially if it’s a story-type song, I visualize what I know,” he explains. “It’s much easier if you write about something real. If I pick something that didn’t sound like what I’d written or was part of what people think my life is, it probably wouldn’t ring true, you know?”

Which doesn’t mean these are diary entries. “When I write something like ‘After 17,’ you could say, ‘Yeah, he wrote that about his daughter.’ But I try not to write them so specific that it couldn’t be about anybody’s child, so they can read that into their own lives as well. In ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better,’ I did use a lot of images from me and Denise, and everybody can see it’s her in there. But I don’t think it’s so direct it couldn’t be about anybody that’s been married for quite a while.

“Once you start sharing your life in your music, then it’s hard to get away from that. After ‘Drive,’ people started looking at me like every song’s about my family or faith, and I keep telling people, man, you’ve got to go back and listen to all my albums. They’ve always been collections of songs about my life, or my family—and then there’ll also be songs on there that are drinking songs or heartbreak songs. I’ve always wanted each album to be a collection of all the things that to me are country music.”

In a way, Freight Train feels like an Alan Jackson greatest hits set. “Somebody who listened to it who’s close to me said they thought it felt like a mixture of all the things I’ve done for 20 years on one album. Right at the start, ‘Hard Hat and a Hammer’ takes you way back to two or three other working-man songs I’ve had over the years. And then there’s some bluesy stuff, and there’s some family stuff. There’s a couple that even take me farther left, like Like Red on a Rose did. ‘It’s Just That Way,’ the first single, and ‘Big Green Eyes’ are not typical country melodies, and they’re maybe a little more edgy for me.”

When Alan Jackson breaks into an oldie in concert, unlike most other current country stars’ cover choices, you can be sure he won’t be picking a classic-rock standard. His respect for the traditions of his own genre continues on Freight Train with “Till the End,” which “was definitely a tribute to Vern Gosdin after he died. That song’s always been one of those that pops up in my head every now and then that I’ve wanted to cover as a duet with somebody. A lot of people won’t know it because it was a long time ago and probably not as big a hit. It gave me the opportunity to finally sing with Lee Ann Womack. It was terrible for me, because I thought I sounded pretty good till she came in! And then she just blew me away.”

Alan Jackson is characteristically humble about where his legacy will go down among those of the greats. “There’ll never be another Hank Williams,” he says. “As time goes on, there was a Merle Haggard and a George Jones, and then in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it got like all music and probably other arts in the world: more homogenized, with not as much of an edge anymore. Probably a lot of artists from my generation grow up in a subdivision and go to college, and they just don’t have much to write about. There are very few personalities left that end up being famous that have lived the kinds of lives that those guys did and continue to as adults. Today, we’re all healthy, and half the artists don’t drink, and everything’s nice and sweet and vanilla, and it reflects in the music. Not that everybody needs to be a drunk or dope addict and crazy. But some of that dark stuff and heartache creates some of the best music. It gets softer every generation. You know, I’m not as hard as Merle Haggard, and he wasn’t as hard as some of them before him,” Jackson laughs. “And the ones who come along after me might be softer. That’s what I see happening.”

But therein lies the combination that would make Alan Jackson a singular talent even yesterday, let alone an altogether unique standout today: he sings “hard country” that’s deeply in touch with its softer side. It’s not subdivision-soft, mind you, just firmly rooted in the farthest recesses of the heart. And for Jackson, home is where the heart is, but so is the honky-tonk.

“I think most of my initial hunger came because I grew up with nothing,” he says. “My family were good, hard-working people, and had decent jobs, but they didn’t have any money. It was either just be a working man and get by, or take a chance on the music business. That was what drove me. As far as the relaxed part, that side of my personality comes from being a little shy, and just growing up in the South. My daddy was that way. But I’m not so laid back that I don’t have a lot of energy. I’m very motivated, and my mind’s always going and full of projects.”

Maybe the Freight Train title is an acknowledgement of his more aggressive side. But, as with the rest of his art, Alan Jackson won’t be the one encouraging you to read too much into it.

“I’d been kicking around several songs to title the album after, like ‘It’s Just That Way’ and ‘Every Now and Then.’ But they sounded too much like album titles I’d already had, like Who I Am, and What I Do, and Where I Been,” he says (just joking about that last one, which doesn’t really exist). In typical Jackson fashion, it may have come down to a very simple motive, in the end. “I’ve had about every other vehicle—boats, cars, motorcycles— but I’d never had a train on the album cover.” Maybe a 747, next time? Until then, here’s to contemporary country music’s most reliable engineer.

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