Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Alan Jackson makes his statement crystal clear with the title - "The Bluegrass Album." The traditional country singer has "gone bluegrass," although the idea of a bluegrass disc should not come off as all that far fetched. Yes, there's no pedal steel here, but the sounds, subject and voice are not very different from a typical AJ disc.
And this is not the first time that Jackson has veered off the straight and narrow path as his gospel albums indicated. The fact of the matter, though, is that Jackson sounds quite at home.
One constant throughout Jackson's career has been the strength of his voice, and that is a huge plus once again. He sings with tenderness (Mary) and emotion throughout. Like his concerts, Jackson tends to keep it simple (the extended Appalachian Mountain Girl and Blue Ridge Mountain Song), meaning that less is a lot more. He picks it up a few notches on Let's Get Back to Me and You, which is about as much country as bluegrass, something true of several songs.
Jackson did not use the Strayhorns to record this disc. Instead, he assembled some of bluegrass' finest including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Tim Crouch on fiddle, Tim Dishman on bass, Rob Ickes on Dobro, Sammy Shelor on banjo and Don Risgby and Ronnie Bowman on backing vocals. And their reputations are well deserved as they are given the chance to shine time and again.
But maybe more of the credit ought to rest with long-time producer Keith Stegall with Jackson's nephew, Adam Wright, (he has had a few albums with his wife as The Wrights). They seem to press all the right buttons throughout from the instrumentation to the vocals (backing harmonies on the more upbeat Wild and Blue, a John Anderson song, add much diversity).
As evidence that Jackson was fully committed to the bluegrass idea, he also wrote eight of the 14 songs, tending to keep things fresh. Jackson closes, however, with one of the most famous of bluegrass songs, Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky, more than doing the song justice in a slowed-down version.
Jackson (and/or his label) were smart in calling this "The Bluegrass Album." Jackson was not afraid to blaze his own path, making it clear where he stood. Don't accuse Jackson of sticking his finger in the air and seeing which way the wind was blowing. Jackson knows what he is capable of doing and deserves full credit for pulling it off. Going bluegrass is a good thing.