Alan Jackson has always had two things going for him — an easy, reliable honky-tonk style that harkened back to the golden days of ’50s country and a flair for clever songwriting. Unlike many Nashville tunesmiths, Jackson knows how to paint vivid images that capture the innocence of rural life, from the rube who likes his sushi Southern fried (”Blue Blooded Woman”) to the kids who whiled away the summer building a ”pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight” on the banks of a river (”Chattahoochee”). For his effort, he has sold records by the truckload: Here in the Real World, his 1989 debut, went platinum, and A Lot About Livin’ (and a Little ‘Bout Love), his third album and one of the best country records of the ’90s, sold close to 4 million copies.
In the two years since that album, Jackson has been on a personal and professional whirlwind. Last year his wife, Denise, gave birth to their second child, Ali, yet Jackson has barely had a chance to be at home. And this spring, he parted with his longtime manager, Barry Coburn, ”to make more decisions on his own,” according to his publicist.
On Who I Am, the strain is beginning to show. Where A Lot About Livin’ caught the essence of Jackson’s feel-good persona, his writing on the new record shows him to be more emotionally vulnerable, especially when it comes to his family. One song, ”Let’s Get Back to Me and You,” attempts to rejuvenate a neglected marriage. Another, ”Job Description,” informs two little girls what their daddy does when he leaves the house (”I sleep 80 miles an hour to the whining of a diesel down the interstate/Dreamin’ ’bout my little girls”). Seldom has a star made his life away from home sound so lonely.
It’s no small irony that the title song — another tune that refers to Jackson and his wife — wasn’t actually written by him. In fact, no other album of his has used so much outside material. Of the 13 cuts, Jackson wrote or cowrote only seven. Several of his choices are inspired, especially Bob McDill’s ”Gone Country,” a tongue-in-cheek look at how every has-been in the music business — in this case, a Vegas chanteuse, a New York folkie, and an L.A. pop star — flock to Nashville these days in search of easy pickin’s.
But elsewhere, the material runs thin. Jackson’s own ”I Don’t Even Know Your Name,” a novelty song involving a waitress, a marriage, and a case of mistaken identity, is far below his usual standard. A cover of Eddie Cochran’s ”Summertime Blues” is a blatant attempt to duplicate the insouciant joy of ”Chattahoochee,” Jackson’s giant hit of last summer, right down to the guitar runs. And ”Hole in the Wall,” while a well-written ballad about madness in the loss of love, is this album’s requisite honky-tonk weeper. Still, Jackson’s trademark sound — a smart tapestry of acoustic, electric, and pedal-steel guitars, set off by tick-tack bass, moaning fiddle, and snappy snare — remains undiminished.
If Who I Am lacks the emotional depth of Jackson’s earlier records, it is also aptly named. Think of it as a portrait of a man taking stock, sorting out who he is and what’s really important to him — and desperately in need of some time to enjoy his success. B