Alan Jackson Big Green Eyes

Alan Jackson photo courtesy of SonyBMG Nashville.

In a way, Freight Train feels like a Jackson greatest hits set. "Somebody who listened to it who's close to me said they thought it felt like a mixture of all the things I've done for 20 years on one album. Right at the start, ‘Hard Hat and a Hammer' takes you way back to two or three other working-man songs I've had over the years. And then there's some bluesy stuff, and there's some family stuff. There's a couple that even take me farther left, like [the 2006 Alison Krauss-produced] Like Red on a Rose did. ‘It's Just That Way, ' the first single, and ‘Big Green Eyes' are not typical country melodies, and they're maybe a little more edgy for me."

When Jackson breaks into an oldie in concert, unlike most other current country stars' cover choices, you can be sure he won't be picking a classic-rock standard. His respect for the traditions of his own genre continues on Freight Train with "Till the End, " which "was definitely a tribute to Vern Gosdin after he died. That song's always been one of those that pops up in my head every now and then that I've wanted to cover as a duet with somebody. A lot of people won't know it because it was a long time ago and probably not as big a hit. It gave me the opportunity to finally sing with Lee Ann Womack. It was terrible for me, because I thought I sounded pretty good till she came in! And then she just blew me away."

Jackson is characteristically humble about where his legacy will go down among those of the greats.

"There'll never be another Hank Williams, " he says. "As time goes on, there was a Merle Haggard and a George Jones, and then in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it got like all music and probably other arts in the world: more homogenized, with not as much of an edge anymore. Probably a lot of artists from my generation grow up in a subdivision and go to college, and they just don't have much to write about. There are very few personalities left that end up being famous that have lived the kinds of lives that those guys did and continue to as adults. Today, we're all healthy, and half the artists don't drink, and everything's nice and sweet and vanilla, and it reflects in the music. Not that everybody needs to be a drunk or dope addict and crazy. But some of that dark stuff and heartache creates some of the best music. It gets softer every generation. You know, I'm not as hard as Merle Haggard, and he wasn't as hard as some of them before him, " Jackson laughs. "And the ones who come along after me might be softer. That's what I see happening."

But therein lies the combination that would make Jackson a singular talent even yesterday, let alone an altogether unique standout today: he sings "hard country" that's deeply in touch with its softer side. It's not subdivision-soft, mind you, just firmly rooted in the farthest recesses of the heart. And for Jackson, home is where the heart is, but so is the honky-tonk.

Arista Nashville Big Green Eyes
Digital Music Track (Arista Nashville)

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