Alan Jackson mixed rarities, hits, and a new song that his band had not yet learned during a two-and-a-half-hour concert on the opening night of two special performances as the 2014 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Expanding his set to twenty-nine songs, Jackson spotlighted well-known radio hits from his twenty-five-year career, ranging from early gems like “Here in the Real World,” “Home,” and “Chattahoochee” to more recent songs like “Good Time,” his Grammy-winning Zac Brown duet “As She’s Walking Away,” and the Grammy-nominated “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore.”
But the unexpected songs drew reactions just as loud from the audience. “Tonight I’m doing some songs I don’t always do,” Jackson said early in the program. “I’m going to try and do all that I can do. So we may be here awhile.”
After the concert, band members said they couldn’t remember any Jackson concert lasting more than two hours in all their years with him. A crew member clocked the evening at two hours and twenty-two minutes.
Among the surprises the singer presented was a new, unrecorded song, “Angels and Alcohol.” Jackson expressed surprise, and delight, when the performance drew a standing ovation—one of many throughout the evening. He thanked the crowd after saying he had been concerned that the subject matter might be too sad.
“But those are the kinds of songs I like best,” he added. “I don’t know why, but those sad ones are easier to write. I love listening to them, I love singing them, and I love writing them.”
The concert, in the museum’s new 800-seat CMA Theater, coincided with the new exhibition Alan Jackson: 25 Years of Keepin’ It Country, making the star the first artist-in-residence to be the subject of a major museum exhibit simultaneously.
Jackson spoke to the crowd much more than he typically does in his concerts, taking time to explain song ideas, talk about his pre-stardom days, about his mother and father and sisters, about struggling through his early years in Nashville, and about the importance of his wife, Denise, in his life. During many love songs, Jackson pointed to Denise, sitting in a lower balcony, and at one point had the spotlight turned on her.
Throughout, Jackson cited his love of true country music, getting cheers from the crowd and inspiring fans to shout out their appreciation of Jackson “keeping it country,” as the title of his exhibition underscores.
“When Alan Jackson started out, he was considered a traditional singer of old-school country songs,” Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in his introduction. “Twenty-five years later, he is still a traditional singer of old-school country songs—many of which we know by heart.”
Young later added, “Alan Jackson is who he is, and that is why we love him."
After performing his opening number, “Gone Country,” Jackson thanked Young for the introduction. “He made me tired back there, listening to all the stuff I’d done,” Jackson joked with the crowd. “But I tell you, it’s all been really special. Denise and I sit down sometimes and think about where we came from, and it’s hard to imagine all this has happened.”
The singer also told many funny stories, including one about how a brother-in-law kept suggesting that he should write a song called “I’m in Love with You Baby, and I Don’t Even Know Your Name.” Jackson eventually wrote the song—“just to shut him up,” he said—and was surprised when it became a #1 hit in 1995, under the shortened title “I Don’t Even Know Your Name.”
Another story found Jackson revealing that he wrote two of his #1 hits, “Wanted” and “I’d Love You All Over Again” (written for his wife for their tenth anniversary), on the same night. They came to him on a rainy evening in 1987, while sitting in a lonely hotel room in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, as he and his band waited to play a five-hour gig in a small honky-tonk.
Other songs Jackson added to his set included a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song for the Life,” a #6 hit for him in 1995, which he noted has always been one of his favorites. He performed it sitting on a stool as his band found parts to add to the impromptu performance.
Jackson 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. The group’s newest member, fiddler Ryan Joseph Ogrodny (a former employee of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum), also was featured with solos on several numbers.
But all 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 in years.
“It’s such an honor to be here in the Hall of Fame tonight at all,” Jackson said. “But it’s so cool of them to make a big deal about my twenty-five years, and to have all these things of mine here on display, and to be an artist-in-residence … This has been such a good town for me and my family.”
Established in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program 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 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 has earned his place 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 won 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.
Jackson returns October 22 for a second, sold-out artist-in-residence performance, which promises even more surprises.
[Photo credit: Nathan Baugh/ courtesy of Alan Jackson]