'You Can Always Come Home': Alan Jackson On Family And Bluegrass

Sep 26, 2013
Originally published on September 26, 2013 11:06 am

Alan Jackson has achieved huge success in country music, but he's not above trashing his own industry. The platinum-selling star once voiced his frustration with the narrow range of country music that receives radio play by writing a spot-on parody — "Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song" — that hit all the mainstream marks on the nose.

Jackson's newest release, The Bluegrass Album, is exactly what its title promises: a collection of bluegrass covers, as well as some originals written in the style. The album kicks off with one of the latter, "Long Hard Road," which Jackson says nods to his upbringing in Georgia and the lasting advice his parents gave him.

"When I decided to leave and go to Nashville, that was just the craziest thing anybody had ever heard of in Newnan, Ga.," Jackson says. "[For] someone to just pack up and go way off like that, it was like traveling to Japan or something for us. And I think they were very concerned about it, but they also have always been supportive. ... Daddy always told me, 'Go up ahead and try it, and if it doesn't work, you can always come home.' "

Jackson spoke with NPR's David Greene about adapting the "high, lonesome sound" of bluegrass to his own low voice, and why he chose a fake name when writing a love song to his wife. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So we brought one of country music's biggest stars into the studio recently.

Hi, Alan Jackson.

ALAN JACKSON: Hey, David.

GREENE: Hey, how are you?

JACKSON: Doing good, man. Thank you.

GREENE: Alan Jackson has been a huge success in an industry that he actually loves to trash. What we're hearing here is his sarcastic take on how to guarantee that a song gets played on country radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE MINUTE POSITIVE NOT TOO COUNTRY UP-TEMP LOVE SONG")

JACKSON: (Singing) Yeah, it's a three-minute positive, not too country, up-tempo love song...

Three-minute positive, not too country, up-tempo love song.

GREENE: OK.

JACKSON: 'Cause that's what they always seem to want.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE MINUTE POSITIVE NOT TOO COUNTRY UP-TEMP LOVE SONG")

JACKSON: (Singing) There'll be no drinking, no cheating, no lying, no leaving. That stuff, it just don't belong in a three-minute positive, not too country, up-tempo love song. Here we go...

GREENE: Let's be clear: Alan Jackson has had no trouble selling his music - as in tens of millions of albums, and a whole truckful of awards. But he has always tried to stay true to country's roots, and that's especially so in his newest release. It's an album of bluegrass songs with a simple title: "The Bluegrass Album."

JACKSON: I've been trying to make this album for, I don't know, 15 years or longer. I'm just a fan the music and, you know, it's always been closely related to country music, especially the kind I make.

GREENE: You wrote some of the songs on this album. And you covered some as well. And there's the classic on here, from the bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." And I wanted to play the original version of that.

JACKSON: Oh, I just love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY")

BILL MONROE: (Singing) Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue. Blue moon of Kentucky...

GREENE: Al Jackson, Bill Monroe has what a lot of people in bluegrass call that high lonesome sound; more tenor than baritone. And the Alan Jackson I've always known, it's a little lower than that. And I wonder, I mean when you're in the shower singing this song, are you trying to get up there in the Bill Monroe octave?

JACKSON: (Laughter) No, I can't get up there. I never tried to sell myself as a bluegrass singer. I just was paying tribute to the music that I liked. And I thought it would be better if I just sang it as natural as I could, and tried to make it fit in with bluegrass.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY")

JACKSON: (Singing) Blue Moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue...

GREENE: Your mom comes up a number of times in this album.

JACKSON: My mom does?

GREENE: Yeah, you talk about your mama telling you certain things, sounds like keeping you out of trouble...

JACKSON: Oh, the "Long Hard Road."

GREENE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONG HARD ROAD")

JACKSON: (Singing) I hear the voice of my sweet mama calling, telling me to change my ways. In my mind, I smell the dogwood blooming. Takes me back to yesterday...

Yeah, I think that was just a song about - I was kind of just thinking about all the years since I left Georgia. And I think that when parents are helping you along and - you always remember things that they say and do, as you're growing up, that even as old as I am now, I still can think of things.

GREENE: What advice did she give you, when you sing about her giving you advice?

JACKSON: Well, I think that both my parents, you know, when I decided to leave and go to Nashville, that was just the craziest thing anybody had ever heard of in Newnan, Ga. You know, somebody just pack up and go way off like that, it was like traveling to Japan or something, for us. And I think they were very concerned about it, but they also have always been supportive of what you want to do. And, you know, Daddy always had told me, he said: You know, go up there and try it; and if it doesn't work, you can always come home.

GREENE: Well, we talk about bluegrass and lonesome sounds, and you've known lonesome. A lot of your fans have probably read a best-selling book by your wife, Denise, about some struggles in your marriage. I wonder what the low point was.

JACKSON: Well, I'd say the low point in that was when we were split up. And I thought we were going to end up divorced, you know. And luckily, we worked it all out. And things are better than ever, and have been now - gosh, it's been 15 years ago, maybe? Yeah. So we've been married 32 years, I think, now. And so...

GREENE: Congratulations.

JACKSON: ...that's basically half of our - second half of our relationship has been really great.

GREENE: What is it like to have your wife tell you that she's going to write a book baring everything?

JACKSON: Well, first, I didn't really - wasn't really crazy about the idea. And especially, you know, I knew it was going to get some attention, and all my fans were going to read about it. But I think she posed it in a way that was very helpful. And I still continue to get comments today from fans - women, especially - that bring the book to the shows or something, want me to sign it. And people tell me so much how much they read that book, and it helped them through a similar situation in their relationships. So I - it really did great for a lot of people. And I guess it was worth the price of laying some of our personal life out there, for that reason.

GREENE: And we should say, you're together but facing another challenge. I mean, Denise - your wife - was diagnosed with cancer not so long ago. And you sang about the moment that you got that news.

JACKSON: Yeah, I wrote a song. It was on - I think it was on the last album. It's called "When I Saw You Leaving." And it was just, you know, a lot of emotions going on, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I SAW YOU LEAVING")

JACKSON: (Singing) ...leaving. When I saw you leaving in my mind...

And again, that was a song that's - a lot of time, songs that come out of your life are - are obviously, more true and have more meaning; and they're real, so it effects people that way.

GREENE: Now, I know as of about a year ago, it looked like she had won the battle against cancer. How is she doing now?

JACKSON: Oh, it's great. Yeah, we just had another checkup recently, and everything is clear and good. And we just keep on hoping for the best. And right now, it looks wonderful.

GREENE: That's great news. And she's on this new album in kind of a happier way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY")

JACKSON: (Singing) Mary...

Oh, yeah.

(Singing) ...sweet wife...

GREENE: Now, you told a story on stage recently about her asking you why you're singing about your wife but naming her Mary, instead of Denise.

JACKSON: Yeah, I played it for her. You know, it's a really sweet song about somebody married somebody named Mary. And she, of course, wanted to know who Mary was - just joking; she knew it wasn't anybody. But she said: You mean Mary, your second wife? I said - she's just joking - and I said no. You know, I'm just - her name is Denise, and we call her Nisey. That's been her nickname most of her life. And I told her "Nisey" just didn't sing good, and "Mary" just kind of came out. And I felt like since that was Jesus' mama, that she'd be all right with it. And she was.

GREENE: Well, a big hello to your wife, and really happy that she's beaten cancer. That's just wonderful news.

JACKSON: Well, thank you, David. I appreciate that. It's been a real blessing to have all that work out the way it has. And we've been a lot luckier than some.

GREENE: Well, thanks so much for your time.

JACKSON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY")

JACKSON: (Singing) Mary, sweet wife...

GREENE: That's Alan Jackson. His latest release, "The Bluegrass Album," is out this week.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.