For non-country fans who couldn't tell one Alan Jackson record from another, this new one has an easy identifier -- it's the one that contains his reaction song to the September 11th attacks. "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" actually makes two appearances on Drive: There's the studio version and, as a bonus cut, Jackson's live debut (and more intimate reading) of the song at last fall's Country Music Association Awards telecast.
I don't mean to sound unpatriotic, but I don't much care for the song. It's an admirably plainspoken series of obvious questions -- a common man's reaction to national crisis. But while Jackson may well be "a singer of simple songs" and "not a real political man," the lines "I'm not sure I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran" and "Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watchin'/And turn on I Love Lucy reruns" still seem entirely insufficient responses to the challenges of the day.
In truth, Jackson's never been much at Big Statements, as his 1998 album High Mileage attested. That's the one where he sounded equally awkward with the romantic melodrama of "I'll Go On Loving You" and the populist politics of "Little Man" -- both hit country singles.
Jackson's voice is simply too average by country standards to put over material that veers toward the maudlin or serious. George Jones, with his remarkable ability to push songs of romantic pain to the edge of absurdity without ever losing his hold on the sentiment's power or the listener's heartstrings, might have made something of "I'll Go On Loving You" or Drive's lachrymose love songs "Once in a Lifetime Love" and "The Sounds," but Jackson, a Jones disciple, doesn't stand a chance. Similarly, Merle Haggard might have nailed the class politics of "Little Man" or the bewilderment of "Where Were You." But Jackson can't contend with those country titans. He's a likable lightweight, but that adjective is every bit as crucial as the noun.
You see, I like Alan Jackson. For novices and skeptics interested in giving contemporary Nashville a chance, I'd say you couldn't do much better than his 1995 greatest-hits collection. As far as Mr. Nashville candidates go (and with album sales over 36 million, he's on the short list), I'll take this good-natured hunk over a nakedly ambitious marketing major like Garth Brooks or a former Native American-baiter like Tim "Mr. Faith Hill" McGraw.
Jackson's greatest-hits collection -- which begins with the fine small-town nostalgia of "Chattahoochee" and the sly but kind critique of Nashville carpetbaggers in "Gone Country" -- shows off his minor but pleasurable vocal strengths. And it's Jackson's charm and more mundane vocal grace that allow him to shine on Drive's more earthbound songs.
For one thing, as "Chattahoochee" demonstrated, Jackson is currently unrivaled in his ability to make typical country corn go down easy. The title track is a formulaic but effective bit of rural nostalgia, the kind of genre gem where manly concrete images such as transoms and motors, chokes and clutches somehow become the stuff of tear-jerking. Similarly, "First Love" manages to pay tribute to an "older woman" that's actually a vintage car without causing you to groan too much. Other concept songs require no equivocation: "Designated Drinker" -- a duet with George Strait -- is the kind of inevitable country song that you can't believe hasn't already been written, and the jaunty "Work in Progress" is as gentle and unassumingly perceptive a song about assimilating good ole boys into modern gender roles as you'll hear.
Jackson's good taste and easy delivery make all the difference when working worn country love-song tropes for whatever they have left. The lovely "A Little Bluer Than That" -- about how his own romantic pain is more real than that in the professional songcraft he often sings, whether Jackson realizes it or not -- has his voice burnished nicely by crying fiddle and good, twangy vocal harmonies. And "Bring On the Night" makes domesticity sound sexy in the best country-music tradition. Jackson's achy, breaky "When the sun goes down, you know how to set things right" brings the mood all the way home where previous attempts at bedroom talk have fallen flat.
Alan Jackson will perform at Horseshoe Casino on Saturday, February 16th.
Someone who didn't know any better might listen to The Great Divide and hear it as a pathetic, failed attempt to repackage a washed-up icon -- a star-studded reclamation project that has label moneymen hoping for a commercial miracle on a par with Carlos Santana's Supernatural. Hell, like Santana's unlikely comeback, it even "boasts" the presence of Matchbox Twenty blowhard Rob Thomas.
Nelson's corporate handlers tried and failed at the same experiment a couple of years ago with the overblown, duet-ridden blues record Milk Cow Blues. But that doesn't stop them from laying the guest stars on thick again this time, with appearances from Thomas, frequent Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight, Cyndi Lauper, and Bonnie Raitt. Thomas pens three dull tunes; Taupin has his fingerprints on three overwrought ones.
It's an obscene waste of resources, especially since Nelson doesn't need the help. All any music fan with halfway decent ears needs is Nelson alone or with his trusted road band, and, left to his own devices, Nelson has been making good-to-great records regularly in recent years.
Let the bright minds of the corporate record industry find some other Living Legend to rehabilitate. Willie Nelson doesn't need the assistance.