12th Annual Artist-In-Residence: Alan Jackson:  October 22, 2014

CMA Theater

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