Single Review: Alan Jackson, “Where Have You Gone”

“Where Have You Gone”

Alan Jackson

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.

Grade: C

10 Comments

  1. This was my least favorite of the three new tracks Alan put out for his upcoming album, simply because as much as I love traditional country and want it represented much more on the radio, songs about that very subject tend to not do as much for me, and don’t hold up for repeated listening as much. It still sounds great, overall, though, and of course I love the fiddle and steel. The other two tracks were much more to my liking, especially “Way Down In My Whiskey,” which is classic AJ to my ears.

    As for the timing of this song and the current state of country, I think what he might be getting at is that even though there are a few artists on the radio who are trying to bring a more traditional sound back, there is still generally way too little of that style being represented, especially music in the vein of Haggard, Jones, Randy Travis, etc., and even Strait and Jackson. I even read a recent quote from him where he mentioned that there are a lot of young artists out there making traditional country music, but very little of it gets on the radio, CMT, and other mainstream outlets, which I have to agree. Maybe things really are getting better, and I sure hope they are, but on the few times recently that I’ve heard any country radio for an extended period of time, I still hear way much more pop/rock/hip hop influenced music than I do anything that’s traditional in any way. Hopefully, that will be changing in the not too distant future, though.

  2. Not an immortal classic, but not bad either. Country radio won’t play it, but if they do it will be the best sounding track currently playing

  3. …a lament, where lyrics, sound, production and the singer’s standpoint fit like hand and glove. a fine, utterly personal, poem or love letter, yet not addressing the love for a person but his arguably greatest passion. for once, greater detail might have been rather counterproductive, i feel. it would only have gotten in the way with his big picture and concern, risking to become just another name dropping bonanza perhaps. all in all, a very civilized way of expressing personal discontent with a status quo. Not the worst path in a country that seems to have lost its way completely in this respect for quite some time.

  4. hmmmm..well I disagree. I think it’s a great song. I’ve missed hearing new music from AJ and look forward to hearing the rest of the album today! His albums are ALWAYS good.

  5. This is a exemplary song which portrays the death of traditional country music compared to what is now played on so called country music radio, which is not country music in any way shape or form. What is played now on country radio is just garbage watered down pop music from so called artists that couldn’t make it in the pop world, with the exception of a few. Please Alan don’t ever quit making this music.

  6. I largely agree with Jamie. I really like the sound of this song and I’d like to disagree with his assessment of country radio, but mainstream country radio is still sounding quite bland with still too many drum machine beats and not enough organic steel for my taste. I’m very grateful that there are other very accessible ways to hear country music other than radio, but I miss being able to enjoy mainstream country radio that I don’t have to pay a subscription for and I miss being able to enjoy listening to country music count downs.

  7. Good grief. Maybe he wrote the song BEFORE Covid. Why do people feel the need to frame everything in the here and now?
    I’m thrilled Alan Jackson is back. Lee Anne Womack had an album a few years back trying to bring traditional music back into the spotlight. It was terrific and received only nominal airplay. Radio stations aren’t listening when country music fans say enough of the “ bro rock/ country” garbage. Maybe Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson will have better luck.

  8. Wow. What a spectacularly bad take. Journalism isn’t for you. CLueless. With bells on.

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