The Bluegrass Album
Alan’s Country Records/EMI Nashville
2 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
You don’t hear it as often as you did, but it rankles me when anyone speaks of “keeping bluegrass alive.” It’s a music half as old as jazz, and just a few years older than rock ‘n’ roll, and it survived the era of big record companies without being debased by commercialization.
Pure strains of the original bluegrass still thrive—in the work of the handful of its creators who survive and with dozens who learned from those creators—while most of the music’s new varieties have developed organically, rather than being imposed by music merchants.
Why then do bluegrassers still react to forays into their music by country stars—at least those without bona fides like Ricky Skaggs and a few others—with a deference nothing short of dispiriting?
The latest NashVegas personality to deign to get back to his roots or whatever with some pickin’ and grinnin’ is Alan Jackson. By no means the worst offender of the CMT era of Nashville—I actually liked his country covers album Under the Influence (1999)—Jackson doesn’t come close to having the hillbilly cred to have covered Larry Cordle’s “Murder on Music Row,” much less to cut a bluegrass record.
But he did, writing eight of the thirteen cuts on The Bluegrass Album—apparently with a songwriting Mad Libs booklet and liberal use of terms like “ain’t,” “hard road,” “blacktop,” “Heaven,” and, of course, “blue” (ridges, sides of town, moons, a state of being, especially when coupled with “wild”), “mountains” (Appalachian, Blue Ridge)—while throwing in de rigueur covers of a couple of bluegrass standards: Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and the Dillards’ “There is a Time.”
Jackson’s easy croon, which works well on his palatable country recordings, is not at all suited for bluegrass, and he sounds positively somnolent on this record—not a hint of the soulfulness that actual bluegrass requires, but just a little more effort than was put into the album cover (see below). The house band here does include Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar), Sammy Shelor (banjo), and Adam Steffey (mandolin), so the music itself is more than adequate, but the only use I can imagine for this lot is to soften up a fan of modern country music before slipping him some of the real thing.