Locomotives aren’t much about bluster. They’re more about power, speed, efficiency, rugged beauty, and drive. So is the career of Alan Jackson, which recently passed the 20-year signpost without the slightest stall in sight. The country music superstar cites no particular ulterior motive in naming his new album Freight Train, although he will allow that maybe there’s just the hint of a career metaphor in there. “This title just jumped out at me,” he says. “When you really think about it, man, we’ve been rolling along here for a lot of years, still going like a train.” Momentum: you can’t beat it, and Jackson’s still got it. He’s sold more than 50 million albums and had 34 No. 1 hits—three of those off his last album, 2008’s Good Time.
As superstars go, he’s one of only a handful of artists who’ve been around for two decades who still regularly top the country chart. And unlike the other veteran smashmakers who can make that claim, he’s the only one who is a true singer/songwriter, penning most of his own material. Of course, there’s nothing nearly so unusual about his combination of celebrity charisma and artistic craftsmanship when you consider him alongside his truest forebears.“I wouldn’t want to compare myself to anybody,” Jackson says. “But if I was going to say somebody I wanted to be like, of course, the two singer/songwriters in country music that stick out to me are Hank Williams Sr. and Merle Haggard. I don’t know that there are two any better. I just don’t put myself in that category.” Others might beg to differ, since Jackson’s considerable catalog clearly positions him as a successor to these greats. He’s celebrated the common man in “Little Bitty,” “Where I Come From,” “Little Man,” and “Small Town Southern Man.” He’s spoken to the passing of generations in “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” He’s addressed mortality in “Sissy’s Song.” He’s treated the dream that country music itself represents with respect in “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and satire in “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up tempo Love Song.” After penning every number on his previous album, Jackson wrote or co-wrote eight of the 12 songs on "Freight Train", again showing the breadth of his emotional range. The opening “Hard Hat and a Hammer” energetically extols the satisfactions of manual labor. The comforts of long-term love and marriage get their due in the closing ballad “The Best Keeps Getting Better.” If you’re indulging a crush instead of a 30-year marriage, he’s got songs for you, too: a cynic finds unexpected love in the frisky “I Could Get Used to This Lovin’ Thing,” which adds a steel guitar to a Tennessee Two-style boom-chicka-boom rhythm (speaking of trains). But heartbreak finds its way into the set, too, notably in a cover of the 1970s Vern Gosdin hit “Till the End,” which unites Jackson with fellow traditionalist, Lee Ann Womack. “If I had my way, the majority of it’d be sad,” Jackson admits. “I love writing sad stuff better, whether I’m happy or sad, and they make much better records, usually, to me. The sad part about the sad songs is it’s harder to get ‘em played out there! But also, I think about the people out there whose lives are already hard enough, trying to make a living. Everybody wants to hear something fun or that makes them feel good.”
If Jackson has a reputation for writing songs that skew more toward contentment than sadness, that has less to do with satisfying audience expectations than just adhering to the “write what you know” ethos. “I’m a real visual person, and when I’m writing, especially if it’s a story-type song, I visualize what I know,” he explains. “It’s much easier if you write about something real. If I pick something that didn’t sound like what I’d written or was part of what people think my life is, it probably wouldn’t ring true, you know?” Which doesn’t mean these are diary entries. “When I write something like ‘After 17,’ you could say, ‘Yeah, he wrote that about his daughter.’ But I try not to write them so specific that it couldn’t be about anybody’s child, so they can read that into their own lives as well. In ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better,’ I did use a lot of images from me and Denise, and everybody can see it’s her in there. But I don’t think it’s so direct it couldn’t be about anybody that’s been married for quite a while. I’ve I’ve always wanted each album to be a collection of all the things that to me are country music.” 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. More than fifty of his singles have reached Top 30 on the Billboard country charts. He is the recipient and nominee of multiple awards and was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2001. Alan Jackson has been selected to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010.