Like Red on a Rose
lan Jackson’s been spending 2006 releasing albums that aren’t your typical Alan Jackson albums. First came his stripped-down gospel effort Precious Memories, which featured classics from the U.S. Protestant hymnbook. Now there’s Like Red on a Rose, which is not only his first record not helmed by Nashville giant Keith Stegall but is, in fact, a collection of (mostly quiet) ballads. This has not been the most honky-tonkingest of years for Mr. Jackson.
It has, however, been his most successful one artistically. Memories was a beautiful surprise, and Rose is no less of one. Jackson has said in recent interviews that this album was inspired by a remark Vince Gill made a few years back while hosting the CMA Awards, to the effect of “with an Alan Jackson album, you always know what you’re gonna get, like McDonald’s.” What, Jackson supposedly wondered, would happen if I did something different? With Alison Krauss behind the boards and loose plans to cut a bluegrass album, Jackson wanted to find out. The songs that Krauss brought in didn’t exactly fit the bluegrass mold—but what did start taking shape was an album unlike any he’d made before.
Like Red on a Rose is a cousin of “countrypolitan,” occasionally lush with strings and crying slide guitars (Nashville still needs more of those), a sound which was accused of being at times more pop than country. No one’s ever going to confuse Jackson with a pop singer, but this is definitely a softer country album than he’s ever made. “Anywhere on Earth You Are” is one of the best album openers of the year, a rich, piano-based ballad of utter devotion sung completely straight by Jackson. He’s been one of country’s finest singers since his debut in 1991, but this year he’s shown vocal shadings and depth long dormant from his recordings. (More than perhaps any other year he deserves to win the CMA Award for Male Vocalist next month, but won’t because he’s been overshadowed commercially—even though Jackson’s had two #1 country albums in the past nine months, he’s not had a top 15 country single in over a year.)
The album’s title track, one of four songs here with Robert Lee Castleman’s fingerprints on it (he’s a frequent writer for Krauss, and a Grammy-winner for her single “The Lucky One”), is an achingly beautiful slow waltz (“I love you like all little children love pennies”). “Don’t Change on Me” is spiced up with an old-timey church organ; “Where Do I Go From Here” mixes new lyrics with stanzas from the standard “O Suzanna” (it’s subtitled “A Trucker’s Song,” and works even better than it should). It’s touches like these which make Like Red on a Rose even more special than it would have likely been as “just” an Alan Jackson ballads collection. The songs here are superb, the arrangements and production nearly perfect, and Jackson’s singing is the best of his career. This is one Rose which smells oh, so sweet.