Last night was a big gig for Alan Jackson. At Nashville’s Station Inn club, a tiny hole in the wall that’s a veritable CBGB’s for bluegrass music, Jackson debuted his first ever bluegrass album (appropriately titled The Bluegrass Album, due September 24) live for a crowd of 200 fans and Music Row insiders, along with listener’s tuning into Grand Ole Opry broadcaster WSM AM.
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“I’d rather play a 10,000-seat arena than play [a club] here in Nashville,” Jackson told Rolling Stone, minutes before taking the stage, kicking back in a tour bus that nearly spanned the length of the venue it was parked beside. “[In] Nashville you get a lot of music people, artists and other industry people -- it’s not like [playing for] your regular fans, so it always makes you feel a little bit more pressure.”
The pressure was on not just because of the unforgiving intimacy of the venue and savvy of the crowd inside, many of which lined up as early as Monday morning to secure tickets, but also because he was about perform with a band of A-list bluegrass session players. But if the 54-year-old country star had his way, this night would have originally come during the Clinton era.
“I’ve been trying to do [a bluegrass album] for 15 years,” he said. “It just seemed like every time we got in a position to start one, something else came up and it just never worked out.” It almost happened in 2006, when he tapped Alison Krauss to produce his 13th studio album Like Red on a Rose, with the initial intention of it being a bluegrass effort that ultimately went in a different direction. “We ended up making an easy-listening mixture of stuff,” Jackson recalled. “It was a great album, but it didn’t go anywhere close to bluegrass.”
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For Jackson, the wait was worth it. “It feels like the time was right now, and my head was in the right place for it, to write the songs,” he explained. That’s important, as The Bluegrass Album is a labor of love, not a vanity project for the singer. “I just wanted to make it for me, to show my appreciation for bluegrass. It’s one of the last real American music [genres], where it’s real songwriting, singers, and harmonies, and real players."
Jackson penned eight of the 14 songs on the record, 13 of which he debuted at last night’s club show. Cuts like the tender matrimony ballad “Mary” and more upbeat, but similarly themed, playful story song “Tie Me Down” do indeed bear Jackson’s trademark “Chattahoochee” writing style, but are framed with percussive, string and harmony-heavy bluegrass idioms when it came to chord progressions and arrangements.
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Inside the sardine-packed, sweaty Station Inn, beer flowed, nachos cooked and popcorn kernels fell on the floor. “I’ve played places worse than this before,” Jackson joked after humbly strolling to the stage, dressed in country casual — denim on denim and donning his trademark white cowboy hat. Imposing in stature, the singer’s head wasn’t all that far from the low ceiling. He took advantage of that intimacy, locking eyes with transfixed fans as he crooned weepers like “Knew All Along” and the dreamy “Way Beyond the Blue.” He also riled the crowd up during the festive “Appalachian Mountain Girl,” smiling ear to ear as members of the eight-piece backing band took center stage to trade licks.
The show’s most emotional moment came when Jackson played the album’s “Blue Side of Heaven,” a song inspired by the death of George Jones.
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“It just kind of hit me hard when George [went],” Jackson said when introducing the song. “He was dying and he knew he wasn’t gonna [live] but a few days — it bothered me every day. I was listening to this song and I sent it to [Jones’ widow] Nancy Jones after George passed away and she told me she played this thing every day. That made me feel good, because it’s a sad song, but it has a sweet side, too.”
As an encore, Jackson paid tribute to Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, inviting the crowd to sing along (which they eagerly did) on a cover of Monroe’s signature tune “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which he's performed in the past as part of his arena shows as well.
Jackson’s still not sure if he’s going to take this show on the road, though. “I’m not really worried about trying to get [the album] on the radio,” he said. “If everybody likes it and people want us to come play live, then we’ll probably look at that. I guess I’ve got to wait until it gets released and see if the fans like it or not.” If last night was any indication, they certainly will.
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