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Out of his comfort zone

Alan Jackson could have churned out honky-tonk hits till the cows came home, but he wanted something more -- and he got it.

September 24, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Franklin, Tenn. — THE main compound at Alan Jackson's sprawling 140-acre estate amid rolling farmland here several miles outside Nashville consists of four structures: a two-story plantation-style mansion; an immaculate, white 12-car garage that houses his collection of vintage cars (and one Husky Taildragger two-seater airplane); smaller, but still impossible to miss at opposite edges of the gravel courtyard between the house and garage, are a wooden treehouse and swing set worthy of the Swiss Family Robinson, and a storybook playhouse, the latter two built for his daughters, Mattie, Ali and Dani.

On a recent late-summer morning, the swings hung motionless, the dollhouse vacant. "They've about outgrown those now," the lanky, blond-haired and mustached country singer and songwriter said with his gentle Georgia drawl. Mattie's 16 now, Ali is 13 and Dani is 9; for the most part, they're not much interested in treehouses and swing sets anymore.

"The little one, every now and then she'll go in that playhouse," he says. "But the rest of 'em, they've got golf carts they ride around. We've got basketball and tennis courts." There's also a large pond out back that's stocked with fish, although his girls don't do much fishing either. A delicate gazebo sits on an island in the middle.

"It's like Disneyland out here," he says with a chuckle.

Disneyland, perhaps; not Neverland.

The empty swings give Jackson a vivid daily reminder of the passage of time, a theme that looms prominently in his new album, "Like Red on a Rose."

The song set is a marked departure for the man known as much in country circles for upbeat honky-tonk hits such as "Don't Rock the Jukebox" and "Chattahoochee" as he is outside the country mainstream for his breakthrough 9/11 anthem, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."

The new album's songs were brought to him by bluegrass singer and fiddler Alison Krauss, whom he sought out to produce it. Most deal honestly but gracefully with aging and the impact on life and love, particularly in a youth-obsessed culture, as Jackson does in "The Firefly's Song," which longtime Krauss associate Robert Lee Castleman wrote for the album:

I used to run in a young man's boots

With a young man's heart and a young man's roots

But now I stand where a young man stood before

I don't run like I used to

This old man don't run no more

"I'm sure he's at the same place I'm at in my life," says Jackson, 47, dressed weekday casual in a pinstriped Oxford shirt rolled up midforearm, blue shorts, loafers and white socks. In place of the white Stetson that usually tops those blond locks when he appears in public, he's wearing a weathered baseball cap with an embroidered marlin.

"I never try to hide the fact of how old I am or try to appear any younger than I am," he says. "I never try to do songs I think are going to appeal to a younger audience. I do what I like, and if they like it, great. But I know that when I was a young man, when I was 20 years old, I loved George Jones. I knew girls that did too at that age. So it's not about your age. It's more the music. I'm very comfortable where I'm at, and that's one reason I wanted to do an album like this."

Another Castleman song, "Where Do I Go From Here (A Trucker's Song)," unexpectedly alternates verses of Stephen Foster's "Oh Susanna" with original stanzas in a folksy ballad posing grown-up questions about one's direction and priorities in life.

Like all the material chosen for the album, the song was Krauss' idea. "She played that one for me, and I thought she'd lost her mind," Jackson says with a laugh. "It took me awhile listening to the lyrics to understand the parallels."

When Jackson originally approached Krauss after last fall's Country Music Assn. Awards show, he asked if she'd like to work together on a bluegrass album. He'd long thought about recording one, and who better to produce than the 20-time Grammy-winning darling of bluegrass music?

*

Making a statement

THE man who's racked up 22 No. 1 country singles -- more than Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn and all but 10 singers in country history -- had been feeling the urge to try something different.

He told his longtime producer Keith Stegall that the next time he went into the studio, "maybe we need to do something a little more, I don't know, mature, more reflective of my age, more moody, instead of just 'Here comes another Alan Jackson album.'

"It's weird how Alison had kind of the same idea. I guess hers were just a little more extreme than mine."

Krauss, in an interview for a DVD that will accompany the CD, said she wanted "to make a record about a man who is reflecting on his life from a very peaceful place, a man who's pleased with what's gone on so far."

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