Good Time” is a honky-tonk jam that kicks off Alan Jackson’s new Arista Nashville album for a tremendously easygoing yet edgy five minutes-plus. It’s a Friday night country tune sung by a dog-tired guy who has worked straight through the week yet doesn’t want to sleep—not now; not when “all the conditions are right,” as Jackson sings, for something sweeter. The guy has cashed his check, cleaned his truck, picked up his girl across town, and as the sun goes down, he’s heading out for some fun—some beer, some Bocephus, some relief.
Jackson’s new collection—for which he wrote all seventeen songs—is named “Good Time,” as well. Loose, inventive, traditional, high-spirited, sad, intense, laid-back, clear as a bell, the album is a great Alan Jackson hang. “I guess I felt like I needed something that wasn’t entirely a big, heavy album,” says Jackson, whose last release, 2006’s profoundly acclaimed Like Red on A Rose was an adventurous exploration of country-soul with producer Alison Krauss.
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“You know,” Jackson continues, “I felt like I wanted something that had some fun on it, because when I play in concert people still want to hear songs like ‘Chattahoochee’ and ‘Don’t Rock the Jukebox’—all those are a big part of our success too, as well as the big ballads. That’s why I wanted to call it ‘Good Time’, even though the whole album’s not a bunch of party songs.”
The collection reunites Jackson with his excellent long-time Nashville producer Keith Stegall, who encouraged him to stick with his own songs for this record. “We just went into the studio and started fooling with them,” Jackson says of the 22 songs he brought to the studio. “And every one I played, Keith would say, ‘Yeah, we ought to cut that one.’
“I don’t push my own songs; I always look for guidance from Keith. I’ve always gone in and said, ‘We just want to make a good record.’ I don’t care if I write any of them or all of them. But this time I said, ‘Are you sure you think we should do all these of mine?’ We had some good outside songs he had found.
“The songs that ended up on the record all have different qualities that make up the record. It’s a mixture of styles and subjects so somebody can hopefully find something on there to like.”
As a songwriter, Jackson always has been a little tricky to classify. His work is a hybrid of Nashville professionalism and personal expressiveness: His songs offer the hummable polish of the most expert Music Row copyrights at the same time that they expose the personal interiors that listeners associate with the work of self-contained singer-songwriters.
With its seventeen straight-up original tunes related but not limited to what Jackson calls “fun,” Good Time is his most ambitious demonstration of how—whether working with the great ‘60s-based country-soul of “When the Love Factor’s High” the strummed memories of “1976,” the deceptive dittiness of “I Still like Bologna,” the harmonica flecked “Never Loved Before,” a duet with Martina McBride, or the Nashville elegance of “I Wish I Could Back Up”—the country song, in Alan Jackson’s hands, is capable of all things.
“Sissy’s Song,” written for the funeral of a family friend, honors a young woman’s memory with all the compassionate dignity that country often brings to lost-love ballads. “It was for a lady who worked here at our house; someone I saw everyday like family,” he says. “She died suddenly of an accident this past spring and it was really hard on me and all of us. This is the same track that we played at the funeral. It’s a real pretty song and a lot of people told me how much it made them feel better so I was very proud of it.”
Other songs are also layered. “I Still like Bologna” could have been just a belly laugh about an old sandwich, but in Jackson’s presentation it stands in for cherished traditions that predate cell phones. In the extraordinary “Nothin’ Left to Do,” a couple passes the remote, has great sex, goes to great restaurants, drinks great rum, but cannot quite escape a hardy domestic boredom; the music, though, driven along slyly by the greatest country tension in the verses and the greatest country release in the honky-tonk choruses, builds a pure Nashville fire. “There’s a lot of truth in it,” chuckles Jackson. “It’s comical.”
When Jackson talks about songwriting, the conversation turns as smart and relaxed as his songs. “Memories are some source of inspiration, but typically some of the better hooks come from when you are with a group of people and everybody is just talking a bunch of nonsense. Somebody will just phrase something differently. Something you have heard a hundred times, but the way they phrase it will sound like a song title. I have heard them in dialogue in movies or in a magazine ad or a billboard. And then some of them come clean out of thin air. Suddenly you are humming the melody and this hook just pops up. It’s pretty strange.
“On ‘Small Town Southern Man,’ I didn’t sit down to write a song about my family and my daddy and granddaddy, but I did pull from that stuff. But wherever you go, there are rural people—around outskirts of major cities and everywhere—that are working for a living and raising families. They all have the same qualities and same goals as a small town southern man.”
“I guess I don’t sit down and analyze it, or have a plan in advance. I knew we were getting ready to make an album, and I needed to come up with some songs. And then, there were a c
ouple that came out on their own, like ‘Sissy’s Song.’”
As for going with what he calls a frequently lighter country touch, Jackson is equally common sense and matter-of-fact. “I’ve just always written things that are lighter, or simpler, just things that I like and things that my fans still like. I came along singing in little bars, singing everybody else’s stuff. Then I came to Nashville to make country music, and this is still pretty much the kind of music I’ve made my whole career, from light up-tempo things to serious lost-love things. When people start classifying you in the industry as a writer, then it’s real easy to start trying to write for writers and not for the fans. I think when you start writing for writers too much it gets too poetic, it gets too over-the-top, and regular people out there who’ve made me successful, the fans, they don’t appreciate that kind of thing. They’d just rather have something that makes their day easier, you know.”
He says he’s not sure why refining and breathing new life into different stripes of classic country keeps compelling him. “I just write what I like,” Jackson says, “and I guess that’s what I like. Take ‘When the Love Factor’s High:’ I love that song, and when I played that for my wife she said ‘Man, I just love that—it’s a country song. It’s a great song.’ When we came along, we loved Conway Twitty and Gene Watson and all those people. That’s one of the reasons I came to Nashville, was to do that kind of music. A song like that might be hard to get that played on radio today. But that’s just the way it is.”
In the end, what you keep coming back to with Alan Jackson and his work is something that artists in any musical field might envy: balance. He is a dedicated, informed country classicist unafraid of the new. He is a first-rate songwriter who doesn’t insist on singing only his own songs. He writes “heavy” songs about love and the world but also writes “light” songs that refuse to go light-headed. He wants to do what he wants to do but he also considers how his fans feel about things. He’s won every award in the book but doesn’t let that be the end of his creative stories. The effortless range of Good Time recalls the work of Hank Williams—who, as Jackson says, knew a thing or two about balance and keeping things creatively together. “He’d write uptempo ‘Jambalaya,’ ‘Mind Your Own Business.’ But then he’d write ballads and do religious songs and gospel things. He did all that stuff, and it all worked.”
With Good Time, Jackson says, “Keith and I just wanted to go in there and have fun making a record. We wanted to make a country record with the songs we wanted. My life is very wonderful, and I’m happy, and I think a lot of that reflects on my songwriting now. It’s a good place. I don’t feel like I need to prove or earn anything. I just want to make good music that I like and that I feel like people who buy my records might like. That’s the bottom line, right there.”
As country bottom lines go, Jackson’s is among the very richest.