Alan Jackson is known as a pretty stoic guy, and yet the country traditionalist found himself almost — note almost — welling up when he listened back to a rough version of “A Man Who Never Cries,” an upbeat tune featured on Where Have You Gone, the Country Music Hall of Famer’s first new album in six years, out Friday.
“It was just me singing with the players,” Jackson tells Billboard of listening to early roughs sent by his longtime producer Keith Stegall. “I was driving in my truck down River Road and, man, I about teared up. I thought I’d have to pull the truck over. I was just so proud, and it just felt so good to hear the guys playing on there and just killing it.”
The Georgia-born icon has plenty to be proud of on Where Have You Gone, a 21-song collection that includes such thoughtful ballads as “Things That Matter,” alongside uptempo romps like “Back” and “Beer:10.” Jackson wrote 15 songs on the EMI Records Nashville release.
Much has happened since the 2015 release of his 20th studio album, Angels and Alcohol. His mother, Ruth Musick Jackson, died in 2017, and a year later, his son-in-law had a fatal boating accident. “We were going to finish the album later that year and that’s when Mattie’s husband died, and it kind of just set it back for a long time,” he says.
When he returned to work on the new album, with the COVID-19 pandemic already underway, Jackson reunited with many of Nashville’s legendary studio musicians, including guitarist Brent Mason, drummer Eddie Bayers, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, bluegrass notable Stuart Duncan, keyboardist Gary Primm, Scotty Sanders on dobro and the late JT Corenflos on electric guitar.
“Everybody had to wear their mask. It was a sad-looking bunch, I’ll tell you, including me,” he says with a chuckle. “But when they started playing, those guys played some of the best stuff that I’ve heard in a long time. I think they were happy to play some real country music. They kept telling me: ‘Thanks so much for letting me play on this song or that song.’”
Though the title track bemoans the lack of traditional country music in the format today, in conversation, Jackson’s feelings on contemporary country take a somewhat softer tone. He’s not looking to denigrate the new guard and he’s too appreciative of his own success to be bitter.
“I don’t like to talk about everybody else’s music. It’s not that it’s bad music. Everybody likes what they like, and I like real country music,” he says, citing his appreciation for fiddle, steel guitar and substantive lyrics. “I feel like those ingredients are slowly disappearing. They’ve always come and gone, but there’s usually somebody who is making what I call real country music. It seems like it’s getting less and less. … I’m just saying for me that it makes me sad to see it go away.”
Jackson doesn’t think he’s alone in his love for traditional country. “There are guys and women out there that love this kind of country and want to write it and sing it, but they’ve had a hard time getting it on radio,” he says. “It reminds me of when I came here in the ’80s. I was too country for country music, but I finally made it through. It could turn around if the right artist comes along like Randy Travis did. Somebody could break through again and maybe turn it around a little bit, but I bet it’s going to be kind of tough.”
The label is currently working “You’ll Always Be My Baby” — which Jackson recently performed on the ACM Awards — to radio stations in secondary markets. Jackson is realistic when it comes to airplay at this stage of his career. “I don’t know if they’ll get it on the chart or Billboard [reporting] stations as much anymore, but they might,” he says. “But you know what? I don’t care. I’m not bitter about it. I’m 62 years old. I know it’s time and that’s just the way it is. I’ve had more hits than just about anybody, and I can’t ask [for] anything more.”
In fact, he sees a silver lining to not concerning himself with chart positions. “It’s almost a relief not to have to worry about it,” he says. “On this album, I just did what I wanted to do and what I thought my fans would like and it really makes it easy.”
Fans have always appreciated the three-time CMA entertainer of the year’s penchant for writing honestly about his life, and the new album continues that tradition. “Where Her Heart Has Always Been” was written after his mother died. “I just tried to write something that reminded me of her that was pretty,” he says. “After we got through cutting and we were about done with the album, it was right at Christmas time last year, my sister sent this recording of mama reading from the Bible and I said, ‘Dang, that is really cool.’” So cool that he added it to the recording.
The album also includes “You’ll Always Be My Baby” and “I Do,” written as wedding songs for his three daughters. “[Mattie] asked if I’d write her a father/daughter dance song and I said I’d try to, so I wrote ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby.’ I told all three of them, ‘Look, you all three are going to have to use this song, I don’t want to have to write three of them.’ So actually, they’ve used it twice now: for Mattie’s wedding and Ali got married last summer. I wasn’t trying to write ‘I Do.’ It just kind of came out before Ali got married. I wrote it and they said, ‘Let’s do a little recording and we’ll play it at Ali’s reception.’ I was going to put [the songs] on there like bonus tracks on the end and then [the label] said, ‘No, we want to put them up there in the regular mix.’”
“A Man Who Never Cries,” a midtempo treatise on contentment, was inspired by Caylee Hammack after he appeared on her cover of the Don Williams classic “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good.” “She sent me this nice little gift and this note, and she said she went home to Georgia and played her daddy the cut. He was sitting there in the kitchen and he doesn’t say much about all her career stuff, but she said when she played him that cut, he just lit up and she saw some tears from a man who never cries,” Jackson recalls. “When I read that, I thought, ‘Man, that sounds like a song. I’ll have to write that.’ So I kind of took that idea and built around it.”
The lone cover on Where Have You Gone is Jackson’s rendition of “That’s the Way Love Goes,” written by Lefty Frizzell and Sanger “Whitey” Shafer. Originally a hit for Johnny Rodriguez in 1973, Merle Haggard had a hit with the tune a decade later. “When Merle died [in 2016], I wanted to do something for him on a record and I hadn’t made a record in so long, I hadn’t had a chance to do it,” Jackson says. “I’ve always loved this song. Lefty was Merle’s idol and Merle patterned his singing after him. I’d always heard that Merle did this song as a tribute to Lefty and so I was doing it as a tribute to Merle.”
Jackson admits he’s enjoying life these days, and he’s looking forward to getting back on the road in August. “I’m in a wonderful place for me personally and career-wise,” he says. “I’m at a place where I’m semi-retired almost and enjoying life. My family is great, and I can relax and just make music when I want to and like I want to because I know I still have a lot of fans out there that want to hear what I like to do. I can still go out and tour and do pretty good. I’ll do that a little bit and hopefully keep it going as long as I can.”