Alan Jackson isn’t one to pull punches, or to not say what’s on his mind when somebody asks him. His Hall of Fame career has been marked by taking hard stances for the cause of real country music. In a recent feature in GQ, the men’s magazine went out of its way to feature 15 Living Legends of Country Music, folks like Randy Travis, Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and of course Alan Jackson. It was a really cool way to highlight how classic country artists, songwriters, and older artists are still definitely cool, despite many elements of the mainstream trying to couch them as obscure or irrelevant.
As part of the feature, GQ also interviewed some of the artists involved, including Alan Jackson. When interviewing Alan Jackson, it’s hard to not ask him what he feels about modern country music, and it would be even harder for Alan Jackson not to answer honestly.
“Aaaah, you probably don’t want me to get on my soapbox about it,” Alan responded. “There’s some good music out there, but there’s not really much at all that’s real country music anymore on the mainstream country charts—what is nominated for awards—and it’s been going that way for years now, and I don’t know if it’ll ever come back.”
Then Alan Jackson began to talk about Chris Stapleton, who remember was also part of the original GQ feature.
“I mean, even Chris Stapleton—I love Chris, he’s authentic. A real writer. Musician. He opened for me for awhile before he hit so big. I’m a big fan of his. He was a bluegrass singer and has written bluegrass stuff. But what he’s making now really isn’t real country: It’s more like bluesy, Southern rock kinda stuff. I love it, it’s great, but he’s the closest thing to country out there.”
Alan Jackson’s sentiments echo much of what traditional country fans feel, even though to many in music and entertainment media—including country music media specifically—they see Stapleton as someone traditionalists love to champion. There’s a great disconnect to how the media portrays Stapleton as a “country music savior,” and how his music is received by those that believe country music needs saving.
But as Jackson also points out, Chris Stapleton is much closer to real country than most of what is represented in the country mainstream. And Stapleton is a great singer and player, and has a bluegrass past that gives him some legitimacy in the genre and skins on the wall. That’s why it’s also unreasonable when some, if not many traditionalists couch Stapleton as a mainstream R&B singer, and not country at all. In reality, Stapleton is a little bit of both, which is what has allowed him to resonate with so many listeners in country music and beyond.
Alan Jackson also went on to say in the GQ interview,
“I think if a young guy or girl came along, kinda like Randy Travis did in the ’80s—real authentic, had a cool voice and some great songs—and you if you could get radio to play it, there’s young people who’d love it. I’ve got guys that work for me or young guys that I know in their 20s that listen to the old stuff, older than me, because there’s nothing new to listen to. It’s just sad. I’m not bitter and I don’t expect radio at all to sound like Hank Williams in the ’50s, but there oughta be room for all of it out there. Because there’s fans for it out there.”
Alan Jackson is right. There is a bigger appeal in young people for older country music than what’s being portrayed by the “country music must evolve” crowd. And it’s not about country music sounding like Hank Williams again, it is about offering a balance in the genre where more traditional styles are represented right beside contemporary stuff to give listeners more choice.
A few guys have come along, like Sturgill Simpson, and Stapleton to an extent, that have offered a lot of promise to changing the tide, and they have definitely made some great strides in that direction. But then they often go away from their more traditional sound with subsequent records, and traditional fans are left more wanting than fulfilled. But there are still a few out there, like Cody Jinks, William Michael Morgan, Mo Pitney, and some newcomers such as Zephaniah Ohora, Dillon Carmichael, and others that could still rise up and do something.
Until then, we have all those old Alan Jackson records to fall back on.