Alan Jackson isn’t the first country artist to give bluegrass a try now that country music is morphing into pop, and he most certainly won’t be the last. But by giving it a shot, he’s giving bluegrass a shot in the arm. Radio stations that haven’t played bluegrass before will start, and fans that haven’t paid attention to bluegrass before will listen.
Jackson’s The Bluegrass Album, officially released Tuesday by ACR (Alan’s Country Records) and EMI Records Nashville, isn’t actually that much of a departure for one of country’s biggest stars. One listen and you’ll know right away that Jackson is singing, even if the instrumentation is slightly different from what his fans might be used to hearing. That familiar vocal is a good thing, of course, if you’re a Jackson fan, but it takes a few listens to get used to his laid-back style if you’re expecting traditional bluegrass vocals.
There’s bluegrass here, to be sure, but there are moments among the 14 songs where the project sounds like it should be named “Country Music Played by Bluegrass Instruments.” Don’t fret, though, because those bluegrass instruments are played by some of the very best in the business, including Sammy Shelor (banjo), Rob Ickes (Dobro) and Adam Steffey (mandolin), with Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman handling harmony vocals. Rounding out the band are Scott Coney (guitar), Tim Dishman (bass) and Tim Crouch (fiddle). You won’t find better across-the-board picking on a project this year.
Jackson, always a prolific writer, accounts for eight of the 14 songs here, including two of the strongest on the CD, Let’s Get Back to Me and You and Blue Side of Heaven. The first is a compact, upbeat bluegrass song about returning to the basics. With powerful harmonies and strong picking, it’s bound to rack up plenty of air play. (It’s one of the few radio-friendly songs. Nine of the 14 tracks are over four minutes, and the opener, Long Hard Road, is an epic 6:28.) The second is one of four songs here about someone dying and going to his or her reward and it’s by far the best of the bunch. (Four songs on that theme, tried-and-true though it is, does seem a bit much.)
Other standouts include There Is A Time, written by Rodney Dillard and Mitchell Jayne, and Ain’t Got Trouble Now, an Adam Wright song about keeping your head up while dealing with the bad cards life deals you, such as a lover who runs off or dealing with a lousy boss. Blacktop gets a special mention, too. That Jackson-penned song pokes fun at the dirt roads and other clichés that are routinely found in bluegrass songs. In fact, plenty of those clichés – cabins, mountain girls, “the hills of Tennessee,” among others – are liberally sprinkled throughout this project.
Jackson has wanted to make a bluegrass record for a long time, and it’s good that he finally got around to it. Given the lamentable state of country music these days, maybe he’ll back for another shot in a year or two.
The Bluegrass Album is a solid, easy-on-the-ears debut in the genre. Let’s hope it’s not a once-and-done experiment.