You know the country music market is in sore straits when a career-best effort from Alan Jackson dies outside the Top 20 on the charts. It’s easy to wonder if, after more than two decades of populating country airwaves with quality material well-sung and tastefully produced, the hits may finally be drying up for Alan Jackson. That would be a huge shame, because finely polished country tunes like current single “You Go Your Way” are becoming increasingly rare on country radio, with Jackson having been one of the last nineties veterans standing who was still able to sneak such efforts into the playlists.
In structure and theme, “You Go Your Way” bears a moderate resemblance to George Strait’s classic 1993 hit “Easy Come, Easy Go,” but with a deeper shade of heartache. Though Jackson’s narrator at first seems to profess the same casual indifference as Strait does when watching his lover leave, he soon reveals that he’s not taking it all in stride – a fact made unmistakable by the hook “You go your way… and I’ll go crazy.” Clever little couplets like “I poured some bourbon in a coffee cup/ It’s been too long since I drank too much” add interest and first-person detail to the scenario without distracting from it. He’s not so much wallowing in his sorrow as accepting it with passive resignation.
The lyric is framed in a quietly infectious melody as well as a fiddle and steel-drenched Keith Stegall arrangement that sounds absolutely fantastic. Though we would generally expect nothing less from Alan Jackson, such work seems almost revolutionary in comparison to the warmed-over sounds that have all but taken over country radio.
Whether “You Go Your Way” will re-ignite Jackson’s radio success remains to be seen, but if not, it won’t be for lack of quality. Though its artistry doesn’t stand quite as tall in Jackson’s catalog as “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “You Go Your Way” is an all-around solid record that would make a most refreshing presence on the airwaves should it find a home on country radio.
No, this isn’t Alan Jackson covering The Flatlanders, although that would have been phenomenal. Rather, this is Jackson performing right in his sweet spot: a simple enough song, yet with some clever lyrics, a generous dose of pedal steel and Jackson’s typical smooth, agreeable vocals. “Dallas” may not be Jackson at his most experimental (see “I’ll Go On Loving You”) or mainstream (“Chattahoochee”), but it’s a pleasant little gem in a very rich catalog of music.
Seriously though, what was the narrator thinking in trying to get a girl named “Dallas” to be happy outside of Texas? And in Nashville of all places, where country music is all fake and the radio stations don’t play at least one Willie Nelson song every hour. That’s just asking for heartbreak – though it does make for a good song.
It’s hard to figure out why “Blue Blooded Woman” was the first single that Arista sent to radio. Perhaps they felt something uptempo was needed out of the gate.
It’s a great sounding record, with crystal clear fiddles and steel guitar announcing on day one that Jackson was a traditionalist. But the concept is stretched thin by the second verse, proving that even a song that’s barely two minutes long can run out of ideas quickly. It’s little more than a novelty, with its only significance being that it was the official kick-off of an incredible career.
Written by Alan Jackson, Roger Murrah, and Keith Stegall
The slightly perceptible shift to more traditional-sounding music on mainstream country radio carries on with Craig Campbell’s debut self-titled album, which was produced by the venerable Keith Stegall. Campbell may not be a household name just yet, but his album’s lead single is being warmly received so far and will likely continue to be at least for the near future.
The promising debut album from which the domestic “Family Man” comes is rife with very strong elements, but still suffers from some weaker moments that keep it from being a full on success.
With fiddle and steel guitar aplenty, Craig Campbell embraces a crisp neo-traditional sound that is refreshing to hear on an album marketed as country. Moreover, Campbell’s voice is strong and nicely melds with Stegall’s pleasant productions.
The combination of Stegall’s spot-on arrangements, Campbell’s commanding baritone, and the songs’ sing-able melodies provides a very fulfilling sonic experience for the listener who longs to hear unapologetic country music in the mainstream again. In fact, the brightest spot on the album is a severe, though sincere, indictment on the current state of country music that simply concludes, “If you gotta tell me how country you are, you prob’ly ain’t.”
Fortunately, while Campbell sings songs that celebrate innate country-ness (“Makes Me Wanna Sang”, “That’s Music to Me”), he largely avoids hypocrisy by using more subtle imagery instead of pulling out the stops with empty in-your-face proclamations. Furthermore, he does some name-dropping in “That’s Music to Me” as well, but does it respectfully with appropriate instrumentation to support it.
As to be expected from a country record, Campbell ably covers the common themes of love, lost love, family, and rural living. Among the most interesting of the themes, however, is when he touches on barely getting by. In “When I Get It”, Campbell matter-of-factly tells his bill collectors (including ex-wife), “When I Get it, you’ll get it / Times are tough / Get in line and wait / When I get it, you’ll get it / That’s all you’re getting’ today.” Similarly “Family Man” begins with “I’ve been working as a temp at the local factory / I hope they hire me on full time / I’ve got shoes to buy and mouths to feed.”
Despite all of its notable strengths, however, the album as a whole is weighed down by lyrical and content deficiencies that cannot fairly be overlooked. In many places, the lyrics are simple and often border on rudimentary, including “na na nas” (“When I Get It”) and humming (“Makes You Want to Sang”). The biggest pitfall, however, is the album’s tendency to attempt cleverness, which wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it happened only once or twice. Unfortunately, cutesy wordplay is employed enough times on an 11-track album that it becomes a glaring distraction, which might too easily result in an album that is too gimmicky to enjoy longevity.
For instance, “I Bought It” runs through the times that he bought his woman things she wanted just because she showed interest in them, to buying her line about needing space to figure things out, to finally revealing that the tables were turned when she bought that he was excited that she’d decided to come home. Additionally, The more obvious attempts at clever wordplay can be found in “Fish” and (groan!) “Chillaxin.” “Chillaxin” needs no explanation, but the word “Fish,” let’s just say, shouldn’t rhyme with words like “truck,” “up,” “enough,” “love” and “luck,” which all precede it with added dramatic pauses for good measure.
In spite of this criticism, Craig Campbell is an album that shows tremendous potential for an artist who will hopefully mature with time and experience. It would be a shame to see such a talented artist either fall off our radar or ride on such mediocre lyrics for an entire career, because he’s clearly better than either scenario.
In one of Alan Jackson’s most revered songs, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”, he describes himself as “A singer of simple songs.” As proof of his sharp sense of self-awareness, Jackson can submit the greater part of his music catalogue as hard material evidence to support his claim.
Fortunately, in his case, “simple” has mostly translated to “transparent” rather than “amateur”, which is surely a difficult balance to strike. And while he has been successful at it more often than not, even he hasn’t always gotten it right.
In addition to his knack for singing simple songs, with few exceptions, Jackson can be counted on to deliver straight up neo-traditional country music. In this regard, “Hard Hat and a Hammer” does not disappoint. Featuring a delightful fiddle, rhythmic hammer sounds and typical Keith Stegall production (though Jackson almost seems to talk the song more than sing it), he pays tribute to the working man (and woman).
Since championing the “working man” is a theme that has thread its way through generations of country songs, this one is not revolutionary. It’s not even likely that Jackson’s latest addition to blue collar anthems will become a classic. While it sits precariously on the edge of simply being ear candy, it still works as an unpretentious tribute that is fun and always topically relevant. As the song says, “God bless the working man.”