Alan Jackson topped the country charts in 1994 with a song that poked gentle fun at all the urban types who, caught up in the country music explosion of that time, had "Gone Country."
On Friday, the other boot dropped as Jackson went Hollywood, getting his own bona fide star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a personal milestone he celebrated immediately after unveiling the star with a small-scale performance for several dozen fans just down the street at the Hotel Cafe.
He said he could count on the fingers of one hand, with enough left over to hold a guitar pick, the number of times in recent years he's played a club as intimate as the Hotel Cafe, which at times has fewer people in the audience than Jackson had on stage with him in the form of his eight-piece band.
But bar gigs being a big part of his dues-paying years, he seemed to light up before the small but boisterous crowd, consisting primarily of country radio station contest winners. Many had been flown in for the occasion by Jackson's record company from as far as Washington, Arizona, West Virginia and his native Georgia.
In his relaxed southern drawl, Jackson peppered the freewheeling 80-minute set with references to Hollywood and California, but never let go of the engaging small-town honesty that's helped endear him to fans over the last two decades.
"I've been to a lot of concerts in the last year," said 33-year-old Cindi Gatewood of Corona, shortly after the performance ended, "but that's got to be the best show I've ever seen. He just connects so well."
Jackson was in town in part for promotional efforts on behalf of his new album, "Freight Train," which came out two weeks ago. But there wasn't a hint suggesting that Friday afternoon's show was a mercy gig done strictly out of obligation. He and his band joyfully delivered 21 songs, including what he said was the first live performance of the album's title song, a rollicking minor-key country-bluegrass barn burner written by Fred Eaglesmith.
It showed that as much as Jackson prides himself on the many songs he's written throughout his career, he has no hesitation recognizing and taking on a great song written by someone else.
From the new album he also included the current hit "Hard Hat and a Hammer," another ode to the blue-collar worker. He shared stories that further personalized his own songs, beyond what's in the music and lyrics.
He noted that "I Don't Even Know Your Name," a whimsical look at the cold hard truth of closing-time hookups, came from a title his brother-in-law dreamed up and had been badgering him for years to turn into a song.
Jackson has kept his 20-years-and-counting hit streak alive and well by tapping an old-school approach to songwriting: drawing subject matter from a real human being's life experience — mostly his own — in contrast to the invented scenarios that inhabit so much of the material emanating from Nashville's songwriting factories.
He prefaced "Drive (for Daddy Gene)" by explaining he'd written the song, a reverie about that golden moment in a boy's life when his dad lets him take the wheel for the first time, shortly after his father had died and "I was looking for some drivin' and cryin' songs."
That's a far cry from the predilection in country radio today for songs that prefer to describe what country music is rather than embody it.
"Yeah, a lot of it does sound a little contrived," Jackson, 51, said a day earlier, relaxing on his tour bus shortly before he was scheduled to tape another of several TV appearances he's made in New York and L.A. this week, including NBC's "Today" show and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," CBS' "Late Night with David Letterman," the syndicated "Ellen" as well as a "Private Sessions" segment for A&E. He kicked back in a comfortable leather chair, turning off the TV screen he'd been watching to talk for a few minutes with a reporter.
"A lot of times," he said, "when songwriters get together and write a song … somebody will come in with a hook and a lot of times they come out with something that sounds a little crafty. Not that you can't write a great song together with other writers, but sometimes you end up with a song that's not as honest as if you wrote it from your own perspective and experience."
"What you gotta be careful about too," he said, "is when you get to be my age and your age, you're a lot smarter about that. When I was 20 years old, that song wouldn't have sounded that way to me. I hear songs now that I thought were really cool when I was young, then I listen to them now and I think, ‘You know what, that really doesn't work.' I guess you outgrow it or something. You get more educated about it."
On the new album, Jackson displays his songwriting smarts in "After 17," a movingly understated number about a teenage girl's tentative steps into the outside world. It grew out of watching his eldest daughter get ready to leave home for the first time to start college.