Family Man 

Alan Jackson’s latest is an ambitious return to form

At first glance, Alan Jackson’s Good Time might resemble a successful businessman getting back to what he does best after taking a long sabbatical to study a new topic or try new endeavors. But Jackson rarely should be taken at first glance.

At first glance, Alan Jackson’s Good Time might resemble a successful businessman getting back to what he does best after taking a long sabbatical to study a new topic or try new endeavors. But Jackson rarely should be taken at first glance.

In 2006, after 16 years as contemporary country’s most successful traditionalist, Jackson stepped away from expectations with two surprising albums. Precious Memories took a bare-boned approach to traditional gospel music, while Like Red on a Rose offered a twang-free collection of adult love songs polished and produced by acoustic music princess Alison Krauss. Both re-routed Jackson from his usual sly, aw-shucks style.

Because Good Time brings back fiddles and steel guitars with a vengeance, and because it revisits such familiar topics as the South, small towns, country boys and a devotion to wife and family, the album could be viewed as slipping back into Jackson’s comfort zone.

But Good Time is not that predictable. In its way, it displays more nerve than either of his two side trips.

Jackson has always written the bulk of his songs, but he’s never before committed to writing every cut of a 17-track (gulp) album. Jackson also has always written about his parents and his wife. His 1989 debut included a mom-and-pop tribute, “Home,” and an ode to a good marriage, “I’d Love You All Over Again.” He’s returned to the topics as recently as such 21st century hits as “Drive” and “Remember When.”

On the new album, though, he delves into these topics with rare nerve as well as believable sentiment. Jackson seems to want to strip away all the pretense of song craft and probe the marrow of who he is and what he cares about. The best of these songs aren’t inspired by his life. Instead, they are emphatically about his life—autobiographical down to the smallest detail.

“Small Town Southern Man,” the album’s first hit, traces his father’s story from birth to death. Born on a farm. Religious. Patriotic. Hardworking. Marries a small-town girl he loves his whole life. Raises four daughters and a son—the latter of whom “wasn’t planned.” Builds his own house and fills it with patience, love and forgiveness. When Jackson quotes his father as believing his “greatest contribution is the ones he’ll leave behind,” the singer isn’t bragging about how well he and his siblings turned out. He’s saying he grew up with a father who loved him and made the children a priority.

Similarly, in the love song “I Wish I Could Back Up,” Jackson wishes he could relive his marriage from the beginning, so he could he have loved the woman of his life better—and “smarter,” as he puts it. He sums it up with the tender thought that time “changes the reasons you wanted to hold her.”

His wife surfaces elsewhere: “1976” talks of the year they met, while “Right Where I Want You” and “This Time” are statements of faith based on the comfort of familiarity more than the passion of the moment. The album’s not without its carnal moments: “Nothing Left to Do” is a humorous ode to a longstanding couple who habitually get their loving done before the 10 o’clock news, and “Country Boy” transforms a four-wheel-drive pickup into a redneck double entendre.

The album could’ve been shorter. Jackson might envision the Christian Son of God as a hillbilly, as he does on “If Jesus Walked the World Today,” because to him the term connotes an of-the-people humility and simplicity. But that’s narrowing a religious figure to the singer’s concept of redemption. Similarly, “When the Love Factor’s High” lacks Jackson’s usual deft turns of phrase.

Still, the album’s ambitiousness suggests that, like his peers Vince Gill and George Strait, Jackson wants to prove he’s not ready to lose his passion for staying relevant even as he enters middle age. He may like looking back, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down.

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