There’s a heartbreak hotel on Music Row. I know it well. I’ve been living on the blue-side of town, splashed with corporate propaganda and radio conglomerates all vying for the next money-grabbing air space of undeserving songs that do little more than perpetuate the stereotypes of small-town living without ever really understanding what that means. Beer. Cut-off jeans. Hot chicks. Tailgates. Moonlight. Those tragic images have fueled passionate and well-meaning think pieces for nearly five years, as the mainstream market has plummeted further into a wasteland of forgotten roots and mediocre talent.
I was reminded of this during Friday night’s (May 15) Superstar Duets special, as presented by the Academy of Country Music for their 50th celebration. Featuring unbelievable pairings like Miranda Lambert and Patty Loveless (on “Blame It on Your Heart” and Lambert’s own “Dear Diamond” cut), and Deana Carter and The Band Perry (on Carter’s classic “Strawberry Wine”), the two-hour show did little to stem the argument that (most) current mainstream country is just not country. Newcomer Sam Hunt (whose Montevallo has only an empty shell of traditionalism) joined the one and only Dwight Yoakam, pounding out one of the night’s most off-putting and, frankly, bizarre onstage collaborations. It left me dismayed, flabbergasted, depressed, angry and any other select identifier you care to wield from your splintered lexicon. Point blank: that convoluted four minutes to attempt to pay homage to the dying age of country was despicable. (Oh, and this comes from someone who actually enjoys and appreciates Hunt’s debut for what it is: damn good R&B.)
Unfortunately, living legend Alan Jackson also fell victim to a disconcerting incident when former Luke Bryan brand hustler Cole Swindell whipped out his mic on Jackson’s own summer-loving missile “Chattahoochee,” which doesn’t do his catalog any justice, whatsoever. With “Remember When,” “Livin’ on Love,” “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” “Drive (for Daddy Gene),” the chilling Hank Williams tribute “Midnight in Montgomery,” “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” and “Small Town Southern Man” among his most enduring standards, the moment was rather deflated. No manner of Jackson grit could elevate that performance above paltry, sour dough bread. It was actually Jackson’s debut record, Here in the Real World, that gave me the freedom to bask in the greatness that country music could and should be. That album literally rocked my world, and I was only three years old at the time.
One of the few redeeming qualities of the lengthy fiasco was the stellar and explosive collaboration of Lambert and Loveless, whose own third album Honky Tonk Angel was chiseled on my heart long ago, too. It followed her eponymous debut and her sensational If My Heart Had Windows (also a life-affirming project). Angel and Real World are timeless masterpieces of the kind of moving and breathtaking work about which most musicians only dream. Both records are vastly diverse collections, starkly-lit with harrowing stories about the working men and women of America who toil away at their menial jobs to cash that check to buy those groceries for another week, only to rinse and repeat come Monday morning. Jackson and Loveless, stemmed from their deeply gutted respect for country’s past and foresight of it’s future, defined the late ’80s and early ’90s of the modern country format. Their candles burn far brighter than most, even though they, too, found themselves heaved onto the assembly line of black suits and ties only to be told their stories came with a sell-by date. You live and die by the sword, they say. As the same gatekeepers kept pushing and pulling the frayed, blood-spattered rope that became their only life-lines, there were a handful of gritty storytellers that dug their talons into the very earth underneath their boots to uncover unimaginable stories about truth and hope. Loveless and Jackson were at the helm of country finding its way once again. But in 2015, it seems the train has gone off the tracks, without any sign of its return. (Side note: there are a select few—such as Carrie Underwood, Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, among others—that are pushing the format forward, without comprising its rich history.)
Jackson’s and Loveless’ legacy need not be addressed in direct fashion here: they are well-known for their wide-ranging, gutsy and wholly authentic portrayals of the human form. What I learned about life, I learned at four years old, sitting on my father’s lap in his rusted 1976 Chevrolet Caprice Estate Wagon (which smelled strongly of moth balls and Old Spice, if my recollection serves me right). The radio would blast in the summer breeze, pairing harmoniously with the speedometer and the rustle of the trees as we sped past. There was an easy calm about my father’s look, as he simply grinned down at my wide-eyed wonder with a commanding spirit. “Chains,” a possession of honky-tonk, blues and Hank pluck, contained in it a cutting and charming wit that drew a listener into its orb. It would be much later when I would watch (for the firs time) the magnificently-shot ’20s silent film-era music video, a Charlie Chaplin knock off that was as alluring as it was ridiculously funny. Loveless’ equally captivating vocal enticed my eardrums, enough for me to realize that I was much like her: a youthful soul that only needed (or ever wanted) to be loved by someone as carefree as I was. I could tell early on that my heart pulsated perfectly in time with the syncopated rhythm and lightheartedness of the melody, pinned together with electric guitar and a bouncy air.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of country’s most blistering and earth-shattering recordings: “Don’t Toss Us Away,” originally recorded by Lone Justice (in 1985). It told the story of Loveless’ own devastating journey of romance and loss, but made you refocus your own life. The pain would fall down upon the pavement like a stormy summer afternoon. The clouds would gather just over the horizon, settling and rising with each lilting note. I couldn’t see past her voice, as smokey as anything I’ve ever heard in my entire life. She could pierce your heart like a million daggers flying through the air at once, striking and ripping open the organ with a distinctly calculated clinical precision. “If You Think” and the western-swing of “Lonely Side of Town,” too, were charcoal etchings of sorrow, honestly delivered and honestly sung. It just did not get much better than that. “Timber I’m Falling in Love” (with luscious harmonies by Vince Gill) was yet another fine example of her innately blues roots and immediacy: it had an evident polish to the production but never compromised on its sheer power.
Jackson’s Here in the Real World had the same soul-burning affect on my life. My parents were going through a separation, and ultimate divorce, at the time. And as the tears streamed down my face, I could hear the title track spinning in my skull. You think you know what life will be like. But things happen; people live and people die; and life is certainly not like the movies. It was a risky release, but it’s material like that that makes you and shakes your very core. “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and “Blue Blooded Woman” were two of my mom’s absolute favorites. Although, Jackson could sing modern “bro-country,” and she’d still love it. Thanks to her, I was introduced to one of the greats very early in my life. So, you could say, the bar was set rather high. Sure, he released plenty fluffy tracks like “Chattahoochee” and “Itty Bitty” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” (with Jimmy Buffet), but he was a real troubador. His magical voice wrapped around heartbreaking stories and never let you go. “I’d Love You All Over Again” and “Home” are two of his most under-appreciated entries in the great American tradition. If you didn’t cry after listening to Real World, there is only a frozen heart beating in your chest, now isn’t there?
I wouldn’t come to realize both singers’ impact on my life until years later, only after burying my father in the cold, hard ground. He lived a vibrant life. He never let the valleys deter him from those intoxicating highs, like being able to provide for his family or having kids or getting married. He took the bull by the horns and tamed that wild beast with all the strength he could assemble. He horribly came under the gun of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but even in the shadow of death, he smiled. He laughed. He made jokes (as best he could) up until the very last moment. “Oh, if life were like the movies, I’d never be blue. But here in the real world, it’s not that easy at all ’cause when hearts get broken, it’s real tears that fall,” Jackson mourns. And with that, his estate of entrenched, gut-pummeling snapshots was jump started, and he never looked back. Ironically, he celebrated his 25th year last year, driving home his profound contributions. What he taught me is that every sorrowful, every devastating moment needs to be as important as the wonderful ones. Sometime down the road, you might need to recall what exactly it feels like to go to hell and back.
And with that, I sincerely thank you, Alan Jackson and Patty Loveless, for moving mountains with your voices. You changed the surface of country music forever, shaping hearts and lives along the way. I will never begin to repay that debt.
This article originally appeared on AXS.com on Monday, May 18, 2015.