On Sunday evening at the Minnesota State Fair, Alan Jackson made me cry. Twice.
It is a time-honored tradition for a country veteran to play a show at the Grandstand during the fair. Look at the wall of fame: Cash, Jones, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks ... they’ve all played the fair once or twice. Up-and-coming country acts play the fair as a rite of passage, and then the big dogs fill the seats. In this case, the insanely talented singer/songwriter Brandy Clark (the brains behind Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart”) opened for Jackson.
Alan’s in the midst of his 25th anniversary Keepin’ it Country Tour, paying tribute to his legacy in the country world without making his fans feel like it’s the big farewell. He’s not quite done touring yet like his contemporary and pal George Strait, who threw in his hat a few years ago. It’s clear Alan has a few years left in him.
Country music as a genre is in turmoil; for every new traditionalist, like Kacey Musgraves or Mo Pitney, there are 10 more pop stars who’ve failed in Top 40 and decided to try their hand at “country,” like Sam Hunt, Dan & Shay and Kelsea Ballerini. Alan Jackson wants none of that. He is pure country – lookit them boots! Collaborating with Zac Brown Band and Jimmy Buffett is as far as he’ll go.
“Are you ready to hear 50 No. 1 hits in a row?” crowed a crowd member who goes by Hot Rod Joe. It’s not quite 50, Joe, but it’s close – Jackson has charted 27 No. 1 singles on the Billboard country charts to date. And the honky-tonk hitmaker, 56, continues to release great songs, whether they’re traditional country (his new album Angels & Alcohol), bluegrass, or gospel. His country roots are deep.
At his State Fair stop, Jackson let each of his bandmembers shine, giving them ample space to play around and show off their artistry, whether that was on steel guitar, keys, or mandolin. His touring band is a huge part of the stage show and the bones that make it progress as flawlessly as it does.
Alan doesn’t miss a beat, ripping through his countless hits, but it still feels real. It doesn’t feel rehearsed. When he thanks the crowd and says hearing them sing along to simple, sentimental “Remember When” touches his heat, you believe it. Maybe it’s because Alan Jackson, for all his fame, still kinda looks like your dad: Levis, cowboy boots, mustache, a shirt that is slightly too big. OK, maybe it’s just my dad?
The music videos for each song play behind Alan and company during the show; at times, the ‘90s vibe is distracting, especially the ones featuring redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Other videos just enhance the experience. All of my hipster friends know Alan as “that country singer waterskiing in his jeans.”He plays the crowd-pleasers, like "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere,” “Country Boy,” and “Chattahoochie,” but where he really shines are his beautiful, touching ballads like “Remember When” and “Drive (for Daddy Gene),” which grab your heartstrings right away and refuse to let go. Grown men have been reduced to puddles of tears upon hearing the first few notes of “Remember When,” just saying.
Jackson ended his set with an encore, playing “Where I Come From” and setting it to a clever little montage of Minneapolis-St. Paul hotspots. Where he comes from, it’s cornbread and chicken; where we come from, it’s cheese curds and lefse, right? It was a genuinely thoughtful move, no matter who created the video. And though he gave us a flawless, memorable set, he seemed legitimately thankful for each moment of our time.
Critic's bias: Completely obsessed with Alan Jackson. I listen to his gospel album on Sunday mornings. I own a vintage 1994 Alan sweatshirt that says “A Lot About Livin (and a Little Bout Love)."
Notes on the opener: Brandy Clark is a stunning songwriter. Her new album is going to be amazing.
Random notebook dump: My dad always says, “Oh, that guy who waterskis in his jeans?!?!” in reference to AJ.
The crowd: Middle-aged, white, bad jeans.
Overheard in the crowd: Sniffling. Oh, that was me crying.