Some Nashville musicians thrive in the studio; others feel more comfortable on the road. For guitarist John Jackson, the demands and satisfactions of studio work have never proved much of an inducement to work under the strictures of Music Row.
“I have a lot of respect for studio musicians here,” Jackson says. I’ve tried to do it once or twice, and didn’t enjoy it. Playing live is what I enjoy.”
Jackson boasts an impressive résumé: recently back in town after playing in the San Diego run of choreographer Twyla Tharp’s Bob Dylan-based production, The Times They Are A-Changing, he spent most of the 1990s touring with Dylan, and has played with Jo-El Sonnier, Kathy Mattea and Lucinda Williams.
In addition, Jackson performs as an accompanist for local storyteller and poet Minton Sparks, whose tales of Southern childhood and family strike a chord with the Nashville native. “My mom’s from Itta Bena [Miss.], and that might explain why I love playing blues so much,” Jackson says. “Minton writes about her family and friends in a way I can relate to, even though my family’s not quite as strange as hers.”
Jackson has done some studio work; he appears on Sparks’ latest collection, Sin Sick, which also features the mandolin playing of Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile. He also contributed to a few songs on Bobby Bare Sr.’s 2005 album The Moon Was Blue. “I think that is a great country record,” Jackson says. “There are people in town, like [producer] Mark Nevers, who are doing really interesting things.”
Many musicians would lose perspective after having played with a towering figure like Dylan, but Jackson’s view of the music business seems remarkably sane, even as he acknowledges its harsh realities. “I played with a lot of country artists who were just a little ahead of their time, like Terri Gibbs and Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” Jackson says. “They were all great artists, but they were all on the cutting edge, and people weren’t totally ready for them.”
He came to Dylan’s attention during a 1991 New York show playing with Sonnier, an accordionist and singer whom Jackson praises. “Jo-El was a great accordion player, and a great singer, but he probably wasn’t going to be a huge, conventional country star,” Jackson says. “It kills me that they can’t just give these people a career playing clubs and theaters, where they could make a living.”
Jackson’s tenure with Dylan lasted until 1997. Since then, he’s performed with Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne, and will make the trip to Manhattan’s Brooks Atkinson Theater this fall for the Broadway opening of The Times They Are A-Changing. “I play guitar and harmonica with a five-piece band,” Jackson says. “We played at the Old Globe Theater, in San Diego, and it ran for three months. Dylan came to one dress rehearsal and seemed really excited about what he saw. But the show is far more [Twyla Tharp’s] baby than Bob’s.”
Not bad for a Nashville kid who grew up listening to B.B. King and The Allman Brothers, and who knocked around here in the ’80s in bands like The Practical Stylists and John Jackson & the Rhythm Rockers.
“I feel like I’ve never really sold out,” Jackson says. “I don’t play like the typical Nashville session musician, and my favorite session musicians would include [guitarists] Reggie Young and Richard Bennett. I mean, people don’t play like that anymore. You’re not gonna be hearing that on Faith Hill’s new record.”