And that's just what he did, from the opening number of "Gone Country" and straight through the night. During the nostalgic “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” men across the arena had raised hands and held up beers in solidarity by the time the entertainer even reached the first chorus, singing, “I was king of the ocean/ When daddy let me drive.” Couples hugged and swayed along for the sweetly romantic “Remember When,” and instantly went into party mode during such classics as “I Don’t Even Know Your Name," "Country Boy" and "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."
As "a singer of simple songs," Jackson's voice was as warm and limber as ever, the perfect vehicle for putting across his relatable tales of love, loss and life.
Part of Jackson’s enduring charm has always been his decidedly non-superstar persona, even with his enviable catalog of hits. During Friday’s show, his between-song banter recalled the stories behind many of those hits, such as "Here in the Real World," which became his first top 5 single on Billboard's Hot Country Songs in 1990 after a previous song failed to catch on at radio.
"I came off the road from playing, came in the house and [his wife] Denise said she was pregnant with our first child, which was a wonderful thing... it was scary for me at the time. I thought, 'My song died [at radio] and I gotta baby comin', I guess I'm gone have to go back to work. But the record label decided to release this other song and I haven't worked since," he said.
Throughout the show, one main screen rolled photos of Jackson's life and career -- signing his recording contract, his wedding, vacation photos with his children, and pictures of Jackson with other country music royalty such as George Jones, Loretta Lynn, and George Strait.
A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Jackson held a masterclass in the enduring impact of great songwriting. Throughout his career, the singer has always tended to let the songs take the spotlight -- and when you have great songs and his kind of authentic connection with fans, you don’t need much else to keep an audience engaged.
Jackson previously revealed his years-long battle with the nerve condition Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease during an interview with Today. The superstar did not address his condition during the show, and the impact on his performance seemed minimal. He sailed through his hits with energy, and though he did take moments to sit when bandmembers were doing instrumental solos, he interacted with the crowd and often walked the length of the stage to wave at fans before returning center stage.
Every artist will inevitably see days when music production trends move on to other sounds, or when their usual onstage moves don’t come as easily. But at 62, Jackson offered solid evidence to a younger generation of artists that if they have put their devotion to writing or recording excellent songs -- as Jackson has done since the beginning of his career -- that excellent songcraft is timeless, and the fans will keep responding. During Friday night's show, those fans sang every word, from the very first notes through his encore performance of “Mercury Blues” and “Where Have You Gone," the title track of his latest album.
Jackson returned the adoration, signing autographs and throwing T-shirts into the audience at various points during the evening. At other times, it was simply Jackson seated center stage, flanked by his band and letting the music flow.
Below, we recap five standout moments from his Nashville concert.
A Streaming Surprise
In the middle of Jackson’s set, executives from his record label home at Universal Music Group Nashville 00 including UMG Nashville president Cindy Mabe and chairman/CEO Mike Dungan -- joined Jackson onstage, flanked by executives from Pandora, to honor Jackson with a plaque for five billion streams on the platform. In his signature down-home charm, Jackson quipped, “Thank y'all. I wish my mom could see this -- she wouldn’t know what a stream was.”
A Family Affair
Jackson welcomed his daughter Alexandra Jackson Bradshaw to join him on a rendition of “You’ll Always Be My Baby," another track from his new album. "When my first daughter [Mattie] got married a few years ago, she asked me to write a song for the father-daughter dance at the wedding," he told the crowd. "I have three daughters and I told her, 'I'm gonna write a song, but I'm just gonna write one and all three of y'all's gonna have to use this thing.' Then my middle daughter got married last summer and I danced with her at her wedding to it. She asked me if she could come out to sing this with me tonight. She came out to the farm a couple of days ago and we worked this up."
The 9/11 Tribute
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. In the months after that terrorist attack Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” became a touchstone for the myriad of emotions a nation felt in the aftermath. During the concert on Friday, as the audience heard the first strains of the song, the glow of cell phone lights spread across the arena as the audience sang along, and ending as the crowd cheered and chants of "USA!" rippled through the audience.
An Eagles Classic
Jackson and his ace band offered up smooth harmonies on the intro to the Eagles 1980 classic “Seven Bridges Road,” before freshening it with a bluegrass orientation. Jackson previously recorded the song for the album Live at Texas Stadium, alongside George Strait and Jimmy Buffett.
"It’s Alright to Be Little Bitty"
As Jackson performed “Little Bitty,” his own concert was momentarily commandeered when the screen behind him centered on a young girl with a sign reading “AJ’s Little Bitty Fan -- First Concert.” The camera soon panned to a woman holding a cute infant, and audience was smitten. Jackson turned to the screen to see what the fans were seeing, and smiled. Later in the evening, as the show concluded and Jackson autographed items for fans closest to the stage, Jackson clearly took joy in adding his signature to the young girl’s sign and waved to her from the stage.