Midway through his performance at the recent Country Music Association Awards, Alan Jackson launched into a few lines from the George Jones hit "Choices," one of five songs nominated for single of the year. Then he stomped offstage in a huff.
Jackson was protesting the CMA's insistence that Jones, 68, perform a truncated version of "Choices" on the show, even though a number of hot young stars were promised the full three to four minutes they needed to sing their hits. Jones, feeling snubbed, told the CMA to stick it, opting instead to stay home and watch the awards on TV.
"I thought it was stupid that the CMA wouldn't let George do his whole song," explains Jackson, sitting in his office along Nashville's Music Row. "George wasn't some new artist nominated for single of the year. He's a living legend who's been making records for 40 years."
In a statement issued backstage after his appearance at the CMAs, Jackson alluded to Jones's recent near-fatal car accident: "Had George Jones died, there would have been a 10-minute tribute to him on this show. But he lived, and they wouldn't give him 30 seconds."
Jackson has always been the most history-conscious member of the class of '89, the hat acts--including Clint Black and Garth Brooks--that sparked the country boom of the '90s. The approach has served Jackson well, earning him 16 No. 1 hits on the Billboard country chart, two of them covers of old-school gems by Jones and Tom T. Hall.
But Jackson's dramatic statement at the CMAs focused attention on country's ongoing identity crisis, the conflict between the upbeat pop ditties that rule country radio and the traditional sounds and themes that are the music's legacy.
Jackson's new album, "Under the Influence" (Arista), salutes country's unvarnished side. The record, which contains remakes of jukebox weepers from the '60s, '70s and '80s, positions him as the torch-bearing traditionalist of his generation.
And now Jackson's heroes are embracing him as such. "Alan sings traditional country music and I admire him for that," says Jones. "What he did meant more to me than I could ever say. I was watching the show, and when he began singing 'Choices,' it moved [Jones's wife] Nancy and me both to tears. He made a huge statement on my behalf, and on behalf of traditional country music, and didn't worry about what the consequences might be."
"If traditional country music . . . has to have someone to carry the flag, I don't think there could be anybody better than Alan Jackson," says Gene Watson, whose wrenching signature song, "Farewell Party," appears on Jackson's new album.
Jackson, however, downplays his role as a catalyst in what could be shaping up as a hard-country comeback. "I'm not trying to put myself in the forefront of anything," he says. "But I guess I had good timing. Back when we started this album, there wasn't so much going on in the media about where country music's at or where it's going. Now everybody seems to be talking about it."
Indeed, and people aren't just talking about Jackson, whose new single, a remake of the Jim Ed Brown shuffle "Pop a Top," is closing in on the country Top 10. They are also citing the chart success of tradition-leaning newcomers Brad Paisley and Matt King, among others, as a sign that country's pendulum might be swinging back in a more down-home direction.
"I've been wanting to make an album like 'Under the Influence' for years," says Jackson. "I've wanted to pay tribute to the singers, the writers, the producers and the records that affected me and got me here.
"A lot of the songs on the album were on my playlist when I was working beer joints and private parties down in Georgia in the late '70s and early '80s," he adds. Back then, Jackson lived in a trailer and sold cars for a living. "Me and a couple of guys had a band. We did a lot of current stuff. At the time, that meant songs by Gene Watson and John Conlee. We also did stuff by Hank Jr. and Conway Twitty and, of course, Merle [Haggard], George [Jones] and everybody that was out back then. Whatever was on the radio, that's what we'd play in the clubs."
The traditional country records recorded by Jackson's heroes were unflinching expressions of heartbreak and struggle backed by crying fiddles and steel guitars. In recent years, that style of country has been largely absent from the airwaves. In its place are glossy hits from the likes of Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain, as well as lesser fluff from the cookie-cutter acts that record companies are churning out in hopes of capitalizing on the success of these pop-oriented mega-stars.
"I don't know what's happened to country music in the last few years," Jackson says. "Part of it could be that a lot of the radio programmers and people who affect radio playlists don't come from a real country music background. Either they're not big fans of traditional music, or they're not familiar with it. I also suspect they have a tendency to think that it's dated, or that nobody wants to hear songs that sound that country. In some cases they just don't like the subject matter."
Jackson cites his recent hit, "Little Man," as an example of what might be considered "objectionable" by radio programmers, explaining that some stations refused to play the Haggard-style lament because it critiques the way that big retail chains like Wal-Mart have put so many mom and pop shop-owners out of business.
Jackson and George Strait recently recorded the duet "Murder on Music Row" for Strait's upcoming album. The song, first done by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, contains the following lyrics:
Steel guitars no longer cry and you can't hear fiddles play
With drums and rock-and-roll guitars mixed right up in your face
The Hag wouldn't have a chance on today's radio
Since they've committed murder down on Music Row
Why they'd even tell "The Possum" to pack up and go back home
There's been an awful murder down on Music Row."
Fighting words, to be sure, but as Jackson sees it, these sentiments are of a piece with what he's always been about, from his 1991 ode to honky-tonk music, "Don't Rock the Jukebox," to his 1994 outing of bandwagon-jumpers on "Gone Country."
"I've always been committed to traditional country," Jackson says. "I've always tried to make good records, genuine honest records people can relate to and tap a foot to. I've tried to make the kinds of records that George, Merle and the other singers I pay tribute to on my album have made."