“Where Have You Gone”
Written by Alan Jackson
I love Alan Jackson. I’ve missed Alan Jackson. But “Where Have You Gone,” his first single in several years, is deeply disappointing.
You cannot divorce a record from the context in which it is released. The last year has been one of tremendous loss and overwhelming grief. More than half a million Americans have died from COVID-19. Among them, country music legends like Charley Pride, John Prine, Joe Diffie, and K.T. Oslin.
The nature of the pandemic has made the ways that we express and process our grief impossible, depriving us of the rituals that help us cope during a time of loss. Nashville has been especially hard hit, dealing with a destructive tornado, flooding, and even a terrorist attack, all while the live music industry collapsed, which has been catastrophic for vulnerable elements of the music community.
So when I started playing “Where Have You Gone,” I felt a wave of comfort come over me. Alan Jackson has always been particularly astute at expressing grief through music. “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” articulated the dizzying array of conflicting emotions that Americans were feeling in the aftermath of 9/11. “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and “Small Town Southern Man” eulogized his father in a way that resonated with all children who had suffered a loss of a parent. “Monday Morning Church” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” captured the hopelessness and helplessness experienced by those widowed early. “Sissy’s Song” captured the unexpected loss of a friend who should’ve had many years still ahead of her.
“Where Have You Gone” very deliberately tugs at the same heartstrings in its opening verse, with Jackson’s weathered vocal adding additional potency to what is initially presented as a deep personal loss:
It’s been way too long since you slipped away
I just can’t forget, I can’t pretend it’s ok
No other one could ever replace you
So I’ll keep on believing and dreaming of you
My heart tightened in preparation for the chorus that I’d been led to believe would provide further catharsis as he ruminated on the loss of a dear loved one, only to discover the entire song up until this point was a giant fake-out:
Soft steel guitar oh how I’ve missed you
Words from the heart let me hear you again
Sounds from the soul, fiddle I need you
Sweet country music where have you gone?
Sweet country music please come back home
I love steel guitar and fiddle. They can heighten an emotional lyric better than any other instrumentation, at least for me. That’s a big part of the reason I love country music so much.
But without an emotional lyric to support, they’re just musical instruments. What Jackson gets spectacularly wrong – and he should really know better – is that fiddle and steel are a means to an end. Without a heartfelt lyric, they don’t have any power. He’s mourning “words from the heart,” but he didn’t bother to write any. “Where Have You Gone” fails because it contradicts its own message.
If he’d followed this lyric to its more logical conclusion, and truly gave voice to actual grief – for people who’ve died, for a city that’s suffered, for an industry knocked on its back – the fiddle and steel would’ve driven his message home. Instead, he trivialized the traditional country music that he was trying to venerate.
The kicker is that as a record, it’s not bad. He sounds great, as does the hardcore country arrangement. But Reba sounded great singing about Frito chips. Gave a hell of a vocal performance. But in the end, it was still just a song about Frito chips. This is about as substantive as that jingle was, despite having much higher aspirations.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the song gets the state of country music wrong. As artists truly raised on the golden era that Jackson exemplifies begin to dominate the airwaves, we’re moving back in the direction of a more traditional country sound. Luke Combs and Jon Pardi are two obvious examples, but even Kane Brown’s recent Mixtape features killer fiddle and steel on some of its tracks to powerful effect. Rising stars like Mickey Guyton and Ashley McBryde would’ve sounded right at home on the radio next to Jackson in his heyday.
And that’s to say nothing of the rich and varied music coming out of the underground country scene, everyone from Tami Neilson, Chapel Hart and Brandy Clark to The Highwomen, Rhiannon Giddens, and Miko Marks. Jackson would do well to pay attention to his peers as well, as the latest albums from McEntire, Pam Tillis, The Chicks, George Strait, and Tanya Tucker have been drenched in the fiddle and steel and “words from the heart” that he thinks have gone missing. It’s not 2015 anymore.
But if you want to mourn traditional country anyway, at least do it in a straightforward way. Don’t set it up like it’s a song about a dead loved one as a bait and switch. This past year has already been tough enough. Quite frankly, the grieving deserve more respect than this.