There's something comforting in knowing there's a bar someplace where you will always be treated to a smile, a few kind words, and three fingers of your favorite bourbon or scotch. Where seldom is heard a track by Britney or J.Lo. Alan Jackson's records are like that, and it's no crime to say that Jackson is so comfortable an artist he almost glides from disc to disc.
Still, it comes as something of a surprise that his new CD landed at the top of the country and pop charts straight out of the box, selling nearly half a million discs and leapfrogging over recent releases by Garth, Willie Nelson and George Strait, not to mention kicking Creed out of its cozy foxhole.
While it might have something to do with his song about September 11, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" -- actually one of the weaker tracks on the record in spite of its strong chart position -- it seems that Jackson is really just lucky enough and dependable enough to give both the regulars and the new customers, the O Brother browsers, a place to feel safe.
Both he and George Strait, who makes a guest appearance on the new CD, keep it simple and smart by picking great songs and delivering a top-shelf sound.
Jackson is also growing as a writer. The title track, "Drive," is one of those sentimental chokers about how he felt when his father first let him behind the steering wheel. "A Little Bluer Than That" is an infallible piece of writing by singer Irene Kelley (& Mark Irwin), and "Work in Progress" is another one of those Jackson-penned topical tunes that comes off as a silly, good-natured bit of hokum. At least he doesn't take the low road when he comes up with a rhyme for the line "I read that book you gave me about Mars and Venus." There's a hard-ballin' love song to a snowshoe-white '55 T-Bird; a Cajun-flavored track, "That'd Be Alright"; and a near-perfect honky-tonk stroller, "I Slipped and Fell in Love."
That Drive might have a tad more schmaltz than absolutely necessary is a fairly meaningless criticism; no one will be able to convince Jackson or his producer, Keith Stegall, that they aren't on the right track, even if the new disc is, as my dad used to say, slightly slicker'n cow slobber. But what is important is that Jackson's amazing success in the first month of 2002 suggests that the adult country record purchaser is still a viable force to be reckoned with, and that's saying a lot.
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