With the new batch of country music getting ornerier (think Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman") and hornier (Big & Rich's "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy") and thornier (the political feuding between the Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith), maybe Nashville veteran Alan Jackson just wanted to tone things down a bit. He certainly plays it straight with his latest album, "What I Do," a mellow mix of tear-in-your-beer heartbreaky songs, classic country humble pie numbers and a couple of mildly amusing novelty tracks.
It's not surprising that Jackson isn't making music with any vicious bite to it. An easygoing traditionalist, he has managed to have a hit-filled career without courting controversy, stepping on toes or breaking new ground. Even his huge crossover hit remembering Sept. 11, 2001, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?," was even-keeled and, considering the times, remarkably free of vitriol or vengefulness. It was a bit of sublime and simple reflection when so many other voices were lusting for blood.
But Jackson's tendency to take the middle of the road, to play it safe, can also backfire on him. He is blessed with one of modern country music's richest voices, so he can transform even a mediocre song and make it worth a listen. But it would be nice to hear a little more swagger, a little more rawness in his delivery. Instead, the majority of the songs on this new record -- five of which Jackson wrote himself -- are good without ever being great. It is a solid effort that offers hints ("Burnin' the Honky Tonks Down," "Strong Enough") of the much better album it could have been.
Part of the problem with "What I Do" is an overdose of melancholy. "Rainy Day in June" is a certifiable weeper and arguably the saddest Jackson has ever sounded. But an immediate runner-up in that category of glum is "You Don't Have to Paint Me a Picture," a woeful breakup song that moves at glacial speed. And "Monday Morning Church" is yet another teary where-did-my-love-go tale. If you're in the middle of splitsville, this record is probably not gonna make you feel much better.
It's almost a relief that Jackson also offers "If French Fries Were Fat Free." It's another hard-luck-in-love song, but at least it has that classic country title and such lines as: "If french fries were fat free and you still loved me / What a wonderful world this would be."
A couple of the sad songs do get it just right. "Strong Enough" is Jackson at his traditionalist best, and you can almost hear the entire history of country's barroom bawlers when he sings the chorus:
Tennessee, you don't make the whiskey
California, you don't make the wine
And Mexico, you don't make tequila
Strong enough to get her off my mind.
Finally, for an album that seems in need of a little work, the inclusion of "The Talkin' Song Repair Blues" is a questionable choice. The song features Jackson offering songwriting tips to a mechanic in exchange for work on his car. Unfortunately, on this record at least, it is Jackson's songs, and not his cars, that are most in need of a spark.