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After 20 years and 50 million album sales, Alan Jackson stands for just about everything that makes people huffy about mainstream country: pedal steel guitar, oom-pah bass lines, check-shirt fables and barefaced sentimentality.
Listen to a Jackson song, though, and you're hearing something that tells millions of 'ordinary' Americans about themselves. And who thinks that's easy? Freight Train comes straight down the rails of a much-loved tradition, the latest through traffic on a journey that has earned this self-effacing southerner an enviable reputation.
Long after the great age of songwriting in New York and Los Angeles, Nashville might be the last holdout for the craft of American music. And, hitting town with a head full of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard in 1986, Jackson has made himself the craftsman others dream of emulating.
His successful resistance to the pop/rock postures of superstars like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain is one of the reasons country has weathered a diversion that threatened to derail it altogether. So it's no pleasure to report that this contract-fulfilling final album, concluding Jackson's two decades with Arista Nashville, isn't going to create any converts.
Buoyantly produced, it finds the singer leaning a little too comfortably on the conversational Georgia drawl of his baritone, and the writer coming up a little shy on the sort of detail and wordplay that lifts a cliche. True Love Is a Golden Ring's platitudes are plain slack from the man who once wrote Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song.
Four songs at the heart of the album sound like singles (including the personable Tail Lights Blue, with its Jackson-esque "They should've made 'I can't stay'/ Sound like 'I love you'" lyric), but they're all from other writers. The eight originals compare poorly to the 17 on 2008's Good Time, and it's tempting to imagine some musical nuggets have been stowed away for the other side of the contractual crossroads.
In 2009 Jackson turned 50 and put his Nashville mansion up for sale. Freight Train will pump up the career numbers, but it sounds like time for a change.