At one point during his performance at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines Saturday night, country music icon Alan Jackson asked a simple question: “Sweet country music, where have you gone?”
Traditional country music fans, including what seemed like a majority of the more than 10,000 people in attendance, cheered as though they wondered the same. Where HAS it gone?
Jackson was referring, of course, to the current state of country music, aka, “new country,” or “bro country.” It’s crap. And Jackson knows it.
“Country music is gone — and it’s not coming back,” he said in a recent interview.
As bleak as that may sound, all is not lost. There’s solace in knowing that while country radio has abandoned the classic country sound, old troubadours like Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Willie Nelson, George Strait and even Garth Brooks to an extent, continue to fly the old flag to varying extents.
And that list includes Jackson and his nine-piece band (yes, nine) featuring everything from multiple guitars, a bass, lap steel, a fiddle, and keyboards. All in the name of the song. Good country music is about just that — the song. The fanciest thing on the Wells Fargo Arena stage this night was the thin metal contraption that Jackson used in place of a barstool to lean back against at times to rest his now-62-year-old frame. He walked around the stage a bit more gingerly than in the past, but that’s about the only thing that has changed. Jackson’s smooth voice is as good as ever. Those squinting-eyes-and-playful-grin glances upward with guitar slung in front were still there, too.
Musically he hasn’t lost a step, as was apparent from the opening notes of classics “Gone Country,” “Living On Love,” and “Good Times.” Jackson’s eloquent cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s “The Blues Man” set the stage nicely for the more up-tempo “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” and George Jones’-esque, “Here In The Real World,” one of his 26 songs to top the Billboard country music charts in his storied career.
After “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” Jackson showed his willingness to go off script and throw in a surprise, saying that “he wasn’t going to play this, but what the heck,” which quickly turned into a rendition of “It Must Be Love.”
The video screen at the back of the stage served as a giant scrapbook of his career throughout the entire night, including during new song “The Older I Get.” For most of the night, the screen played the original music video (sans sound) of whatever song Jackson was onstage performing. In some instances, video can be a distraction. But not here. Jackson always took center stage. The only instance in which it became apparent the audience was looking at the screen was during “Where I Come From.” Video taken in and around Des Moines, including from the Iowa/Iowa State football game that had taken place just a couple of hours earlier in Ames, was shown, much to the crowd’s delight. The Des Moines footage drew cheers as Jackson sang, but the appearance of an Iowa Hawkeyes logo on screen damn near brought the roof down, causing even Jackson himself to break from the microphone to turn around and see what the ruckus was about.
The rest of the night continued to be a hit parade, ranging from “Little Bitty,” to “Drive,” to “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” to the somber reflection of “Remember When” and subsequent performance of “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning), his No. 1 hit about 9/11. The performance of the song took extra significance as it was 20 years to the date of the deadliest attack on American soil in the country’s history.
“It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” lost nothing with the absence of Jimmy Buffett, and encore “Mercury” put the lid on a solid, true country evening in Des Moines.
Front to back, Jackson’s performance showed that he is still on top of his game doing what he does best: giving the masses country music.
Sweet country music.
Photos and text By Darren Tromblay