12th Annual Artist-In-Residence: Alan Jackson

October 22, 2014

Alan Jackson ditched his normal set list for the second concert of two concerts as the 2014 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Instead, he took the sold-out crowd on a journey through his career.

“I’m going to play some songs tonight that I don’t usually play,” Jackson said after opening the concert with “Gone Country.”  “I’m going to talk a little bit more, and tell some stories about my history and my career.”

In his laid-back southern drawl, Jackson reminisced about his family, his roots in Newnan, Georgia, his early years in Nashville, and his climb to stardom—just as he had at the first artist-in-residence concert two weeks earlier. The performance featured thirty songs and clocked in at two hours and twenty minutes—much longer than a normal night on his concert tours.

Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, noted in his introductory remarks, “Alan has embraced the idea that the artist-in-residence series is about stepping outside the familiar.”

At one point Jackson tested a few chords on his guitar as he prepared to sing “I’d Love You All Over Again,” from his double-platinum debut album, Here in the Real World, released in 1990, “Is this one in A?” Jackson asked his band, and then looked back out at the crowd. “We haven’t done some of these songs in so long.”

The concert, in the museum’s new 800-seat CMA Theater, coincides with the exhibition Alan Jackson: 25 Years of Keepin’ It Country, making the star the first artist-in-residence to simultaneously be the subject of a major museum exhibit.

Jackson humbly referred to the residency honor, saying, “The Hall of Fame was so nice to do this exhibit and to make me an artist-in-residence. It’s a great honor. This place has all that history in there, and all those great artists.”

Then, cracking a smile, he added, “But the residence thing, I’m not sure I understand what that means. I haven’t seen my room yet.”

Jackson took advantage of playing the intimate theater, where the crowd count was in three figures, as opposed to his usual audience of tens of thousands. He sat on his stool as he spun folksy tales about his parents, his wife Denise (who was in attendance), and other family members.

Jackson noted that he and Denise celebrated their thirty-fifth anniversary in 2014. He regularly credited his wife for supporting the couple in the years when the singer-songwriter struggled to get established as a country music artist.

“When we moved to Nashville, we didn’t have anything,” Jackson said, after having a stage technician shine a spotlight on his wife and his daughter Ali. “Denise was working, and I wasn’t. We didn’t have a thing when we moved to Nashville.”

The singer paused, looking up to the balcony toward his wife, and added, “She picked me when I was nobody, so I think she came out pretty good on the deal,” drawing laughter from the crowd. “And I did too.”

Jackson noted that his nephew Adam Wright, and Adam’s wife Shannon, also were in attendance. Jackson performed a Grammy-nominated song Wright wrote, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” explaining that he thought it was one of the better heartbreak ballads he had come across in years.

The tall, lanky singer—wearing a white cowboy hat, denim shirt and jeans, and cowboy boots—regularly highlighted his exemplary band, the Strayhorns, many of whom have been with him for decades. Two members, steel guitarist Robbie Flint and bassist Roger Wills, joined the band a couple of years before Jackson signed with Arista Records.

Jackson explained that the band’s newest member, fiddler Ryan Joseph, was a former employee of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Joseph was featured on several solos, displaying why he earned his spot as the newest member of the Strayhorns. 

All of the instrumentalists—including Monty Allen on acoustic guitar and harmony vocals, Scott Coney on acoustic guitar, Danny Groah on electric guitar, Bruce Rutherford on drums, and Joey Schmidt on keyboards—turned in tight performances, even when thrown tunes they hadn’t rehearsed or played often.

Allen stepped up as his boss’s duet partner on “As She’s Walking Away,” a Grammy-winning song Jackson recorded with the Zac Brown Band. Allen even donned a cloth cap similar to the one that Zac Brown wears on stage and in his publicity photos. Jackson looked at Allen in the hat and cracked, “I told Monty that he looks like Kenny Chesney trying to look like Zac Brown.”

The star also delighted the crowd, and surprised his band, by walking out for the encore, “Mercury Blues,” dressed as the Alan Jackson of twenty-five years ago.  He had blond hair extensions under his cowboy hat; his jeans had holes in the knees and thighs; his plaid shirt had the sleeves cut out; and he wore sunglasses.

Other surprises included an unreleased song, a ballad called “Angels and Alcohol” and closing a three-song encore with “Sissy’s Song,” written for a longtime employee who died of cancer. Jackson also performed part of “Rose Colored Glasses,” the John Conlee country classic, explaining that it was one of the songs he loved performing in clubs before he became a recording star.

The museum’s artist-in-residence program, established in 2003, annually honors a musical master who can be credited with contributing a large and significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. Honorees are given the theater stage as a blank canvas and are encouraged to lend their own creative brushstrokes to an up-close-and-personal musical experience. 

Previous Artist-in-Residence honorees include Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers and Ricky Skaggs. 

Jackson deserves to be in such stellar company. Since signing his record deal in June 1989, he has sold nearly sixty million albums worldwide and ranks as one of the ten best-selling country artists of all-time. He has registered fifty Top Ten hits and earned eighteen Academy of Country Music Awards, sixteen Country Music Association Awards, a pair of Grammys and ASCAP’s Founders and Golden Note Awards.  He is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.

Young, in his opening comments, offered the crowd this advice: “Don’t get too comfortable sitting down, because you’re going to rise to your feet a lot tonight.” His prediction proved to be true, as the crowd responded to the special occasion by giving Jackson several standing ovations.

“Y’all are a nice bunch,” Jackson said after one ovation. “I’m just up here rambling on and telling all these stories. I hope y’all don’t mind.”

The crowd made it obvious that they were more than happy to be a part of such a rare evening with one of their era’s most popular country music stars.

—Michael McCall


October 8, 2014

Alan Jackson mixed rarities, hits, and a new song that his band had not yet learned during a two-and-a-half-hour concert on the opening night of two special performances as the 2014 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Expanding his set to twenty-nine songs, Jackson spotlighted well-known radio hits from his twenty-five-year career, ranging from early gems like “Here in the Real World,” “Home,” and “Chattahoochee” to more recent songs like “Good Time,” his Grammy-winning Zac Brown duet “As She’s Walking Away,” and the Grammy-nominated “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore.”

But the unexpected songs drew reactions just as loud from the audience. “Tonight I’m doing some songs I don’t always do,” Jackson said early in the program. “I’m going to try and do all that I can do. So we may be here awhile.”

After the concert, band members said they couldn’t remember any Jackson concert lasting more than two hours in all their years with him. A crew member clocked the evening at two hours and twenty-two minutes.

Among the surprises the singer presented was a new, unrecorded song, “Angels and Alcohol.” Jackson expressed surprise, and delight, when the performance drew a standing ovation—one of many throughout the evening. He thanked the crowd after saying he had been concerned that the subject matter might be too sad.

“But those are the kinds of songs I like best,” he added. “I don’t know why, but those sad ones are easier to write. I love listening to them, I love singing them, and I love writing them.”

The concert, in the museum’s new 800-seat CMA Theater, coincided with the new exhibition Alan Jackson: 25 Years of Keepin’ It Country, making the star the first artist-in-residence to be the subject of a major museum exhibit simultaneously.

Jackson spoke to the crowd much more than he typically does in his concerts, taking time to explain song ideas, talk about his pre-stardom days, about his mother and father and sisters, about struggling through his early years in Nashville, and about the importance of his wife, Denise, in his life. During many love songs, Jackson pointed to Denise, sitting in a lower balcony, and at one point had the spotlight turned on her. 

Throughout, Jackson cited his love of true country music, getting cheers from the crowd and inspiring fans to shout out their appreciation of Jackson “keeping it country,” as the title of his exhibition underscores.

“When Alan Jackson started out, he was considered a traditional singer of old-school country songs,” Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in his introduction. “Twenty-five years later, he is still a traditional singer of old-school country songs—many of which we know by heart.”

Young later added, “Alan Jackson is who he is, and that is why we love him.”

After performing his opening number, “Gone Country,” Jackson thanked Young for the introduction. “He made me tired back there, listening to all the stuff I’d done,” Jackson joked with the crowd. “But I tell you, it’s all been really special. Denise and I sit down sometimes and think about where we came from, and it’s hard to imagine all this has happened.”

The singer also told many funny stories, including one about how a brother-in-law kept suggesting that he should write a song called “I’m in Love with You Baby, and I Don’t Even Know Your Name.” Jackson eventually wrote the song—“just to shut him up,” he said—and was surprised when it became a #1 hit in 1995, under the shortened title “I Don’t Even Know Your Name.”

Another story found Jackson revealing that he wrote two of his #1 hits, “Wanted” and “I’d Love You All Over Again” (written for his wife for their tenth anniversary), on the same night. They came to him on a rainy evening in 1987, while sitting in a lonely hotel room in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, as he and his band waited to play a five-hour gig in a small honky-tonk.

Other songs Jackson added to his set included a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song for the Life,” a #6 hit for him in 1995, which he noted has always been one of his favorites. He performed it sitting on a stool as his band found parts to add to the impromptu performance.

Jackson regularly highlighted his exemplary band, the Strayhorns, many of whom have been with him for decades. Two members, steel guitarist Robbie Flint and bassist Roger Wills, joined the band a couple of years before Jackson signed with Arista Records. The group’s newest member, fiddler Ryan Joseph Ogrodny (a former employee of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum), also was featured with solos on several numbers.

But all the instrumentalists—including Monty Allen on acoustic guitar and harmony vocals, Scott Coney on acoustic guitar, Danny Groah on electric guitar, Bruce Rutherford on drums, and Joey Schmidt on keyboards—turned in tight performances, even when thrown tunes they hadn’t rehearsed or played in years.

“It’s such an honor to be here in the Hall of Fame tonight at all,” Jackson said. “But it’s so cool of them to make a big deal about my twenty-five years, and to have all these things of mine here on display, and to be an artist-in-residence … This has been such a good town for me and my family.”

Established in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program annually honors a musical master who can be credited with contributing a large and significant body of work to the canon of American popular music.  Honorees are given the stage as a blank canvas and are encouraged to lend their own creative brushstrokes to an up-close-and-personal musical experience. Previous artist-in-residence honorees include Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, and Ricky Skaggs. 

Jackson has earned his place in such stellar company. Since signing his record deal in June 1989, he has sold nearly sixty million albums worldwide and ranks as one of the ten best-selling country artists of all-time. He has registered fifty Top Ten hits and won eighteen Academy of Country Music awards, sixteen Country Music Association awards, a pair of Grammys, and ASCAP’s Founders and Golden Note Awards.  He is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.

Jackson returns October 22 for a second, sold-out artist-in-residence performance, which promises even more surprises.

—Michael McCall

SET LIST

“Gone Country”
“Home”
“I Don’t Even Know Your Name”
“Livin’ on Love”
“Here in the Real World”
“Wanted”
“I’d Love You All Over Again”
“Chasin’ that Neon Rainbow”
“Little Bitty”
“The Blues Man”
“Midnight in Montgomery”
“Small Town Southern Man”
“She’s Got the Rhythm (and I Got the Blues)”
“It Must Be Love”
“Song for the Life”
“Drive”
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”
“As She’s Walking Away”
“Angels and Alcohol”
“Pop a Top”
“Remember When”
“Good Time”
“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
“Chattahoochee”
“Where I Come From”

ENCORE
“Mercury Blues”
“Dixie Highway”