The album cover says it all. With this, his first album of original material in six years, Country Music Hall of Fame member Alan Jackson is back. He’s been away just long enough for us to really, really miss him, and this time he is here to make only music that has something to say, and with a musicianship that transcends the competition. Make no mistake, Alan Jackson’s new release, Where Have You Gone, is a strong contender for Album of the Year.
It’s a comfortable — no, more like a perfect— fit: country superstar Alan Jackson, the mix of instantly appealing mostly bluegrass-based songs, and the assurance that a singer and a country song will heal all. The answer to the question posed by the album’s title track (“Sweet country music, where have you gone?”) is right here in this heartfelt collection that speaks to the soul. Thanks to Alan Jackson (and a few other notable recent releases) country music is home again.
The album offers Jackson an opportunity to reflect, a chance to declare priorities, and an occasional lesson in living life with purpose and clarity. Says Jackson: “When I write, I visualize back home and growing up, real country songs are life and love and heartache, drinking and Mama and having a good time…but it’s the sounds of the instruments, too. The steel and acoustic guitar, the fiddle – those things have a sound and a tone…and getting that right, the way those things make you feel, that’s country, too.” If the majority of the tunes are a tad slow and soft, well then that is what deep-thinking sounds like to Alan Jackson these days. But that’s not to say that there aren’t also a few toe-tappers included on the album. Jackson wrote 15 of the album’s 21 songs, and records others written by songwriters including Hailey Whitters, Daniel Tashian, and Scotty Emerick. The producer is Jackson’s longtime collaborator Keith Stegall.
My personal favorite track is “Where the Cottonwood Grows.” It’s a classic rambling tune that allows Jackson to roll certain lyrics off his tongue — words that just never sounded as right as when he is sending them out in all of his trustworthy nonchalance. Words like whip-poor-will, riverbank, love, and, well. you get the picture. There’s just nothing more soothing than Alan Jackson’s delivery. It’s always been like the world’s best handshake to the ears, and it just improves with age and surviving life’s lessons.