They say that timing’s everything in bluegrass music. If that’s so, Alan Jackson’s is just right. “I probably started thinking about the bluegrass album sometime in the mid-‘90s,” the iconic country singer and songwriter explains. “But O Brother, Where Art Thou? came along, a couple of other country artists were doing some bluegrass stuff, and I didn’t want to seem like I was jumping on the bandwagon. Then, when Alison Krauss and I started working together, we ended up going in a different direction—it was a very cool album, and I’m proud of it. I think things happen when they’re supposed to, though, and when I finally got to it this winter, it just seemed like the right time in my life, in my head—in everything.”
You won’t hear any argument about that from those who have already heard The Bluegrass Album (ACR/EMI Nashville), which hits streets on September 24th. While Jackson disclaims any experience as a bluegrass musician, he’s been listening to it his whole life—beginning with the first time he saw The Dillards’ on The Andy Griffith Show and Flatt & Scruggs on The Beverly Hillbillies…through Saturday nights spent at the side of Daddy Gene, watching pickers on Hee Haw…to a well-worn vinyl album recorded in the late-’70s by a local group called the Bullsboro Bluegrass Band from Jackson’s hometown of Newnan, Georgia. And these days, he says, bluegrass has become preferred listening. “As country music’s gotten away from its rootsy sound in the last few years, I find myself listening to more bluegrass. It’s some of the last real music that’s out there. And I know that there’s more contemporary style bluegrass that people are playing—it even has drums on it and so forth—but I like the more traditional style myself.”
Jackson knew that, while he’d be writing most of the The Bluegrass Album’s songs himself—“Some of the chord progressions and melodies had a little more of what I feel is authentic bluegrass than what I typically write,” he says, “but it’s not that different from what I normally do”—he’d need some help in turning the idea of a bluegrass album into reality. Fortunately, he had no farther to look than his own band and guitarist Scott Coney. “He can play about anything, but he’s really a bluegrass nut before he’s a country picker,” Jackson says with a smile. “So I asked him about it, and I have to give him the credit for lining these guys up—they’re all very talented and award-winning bluegrass players and singers in their own world. I could tell, just meeting them in the studio, they really love the music. And I think it shows in the sound there. They really care about it.”
Together with Adam Wright, who shares production credits with long-time Jackson producer Keith Stegall, Coney assembled a group of musicians ideally suited for the project. Long years of familiarity with one another—banjo man Sammy Shelor (recipient of the second Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo) and singers Ronnie Bowman (winner of multiple International Bluegrass Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year awards) and Don Rigsby, for instance, all spent years working together in one of the most acclaimed and influential bands of the past several decades, the Lonesome River Band—made it easy for them to come together in the studio for a natural, organic recording process that involved everyone playing and singing together in a circle, rather than building tracks one instrument and one voice at a time in isolation booths. Dobro player Rob Ickes and mandolinist Adam Steffey, too, have multiple IBMA awards for their instrumental work. Tim Crouch (fiddle) and Tim Dishman (bass)—both players whom Coney had become familiar with years ago in the Arkansas-Missouri bluegrass scene—are well- respected by bluegrass aficionados across the country. No wonder Jackson gives a shout-out to each and every one in the closing “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” or that he hints at touring with them in support of the release—they’re that good.
The result is a collection that flows as easily as a mountain stream, from peppy up- tempo numbers with plenty of hot picking to more contemplative songs that reveal Jackson’s affinity for not just the most obvious elements of the bluegrass sound, but its more subtle aspects, too. And like the classics that make up the bluegrass canon, Jackson’s songs encompass bedrock themes of country life—broken hearts and faithful love, hard work and hard times, mountain living, restless souls and the promise of reunion beyond the grave. A listener not deeply familiar with that canon would be hard put to tell Jackson’s eight originals from the smaller number of classics and “outside” songs scattered through the project, whether The Dillards’ memorable “There Is A Time,” Adam Wright’s old-timey “Ain’t Got Trouble Now” or Monroe’s signature “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” Indeed, Jackson reflects Monroe’s original 1946 arrangement by keeping the song in waltz time throughout.
Jackson wasn’t afraid to include a bit of artful yet sincere, been-there-done-that commentary that links the rural life embodied in bluegrass to trends in today’s country music and reminds us just how deep his real country roots run. “I guess a lot of young people write about being on a dirt road and all,” he observes about the album’s “Blacktop.” “I grew up on a dirt road, with a dirt driveway, so I just thought I’d reflect on some of my thoughts about living on one. When you go through all the mud and the dirt and the dust and the rocks and all that goes with it…let me tell you, we were glad to see that asphalt put on there.”
In the end, Jackson says he wanted to make an album that didn’t disappoint the bluegrass world. “I didn’t want them to think I was just another country act wanting to make a bluegrass album. I wanted it to be as true as I knew how to make it—to be something I could be proud of.” And where the rubber meets the road—with the soulful, genuine, dyed-in-the-wool music of The Bluegrass Album—he’s done exactly that.