The standardbearer for country music tradition, Alan Jackson returns with a deeply personal album produced by bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss. Originally intending to do a bluegrass recording, Krauss, Jackson, and a who's-who of acoustic music instead found themselves crafting a country music fan's dream. Like Red on a Rose features one of country's biggest stars in a gorgeously crafted, sophisticated setting that's nearly an anachronism in today's high-gloss Nashville. With guests Lee Ann Womack, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Ron Block, and Howard Levy, among others, it's a musicianly album with plenty of mainstream appeal, as witnessed by the fast-rising single, the atmospheric "Like Red on a Rose."
The idea of twang king Alan Jackson pairing up with Alison Krauss for an album of love songs might seem heretical to some, especially if they heard only the first cut, the adult-contemporary ballad "Anywhere on Earth You Are." But producer Krauss, whom Jackson approached to make a traditional bluegrass record, always knew there was a sensuous heart beating beneath his aw-shucks demeanor, one that would fit perfectly with the intimate repertoire, genre-bending musical framework, and virtuoso players she'd always chosen for herself. (Robert Lee Castleman, one of Krauss's favorite writers, weighs in with four tunes, and Ron Block, Jerry Douglas, and Dan Tyminski, Krauss's Union Station cohorts, anchor the band.) Jackson, it turns out, also wanted a chance to reflect on the ups and downs of his long marriage, apart from 1998's daring, spoken-word hit "I'll Go On Loving You," a far lustier admission than anything included here. If there's a downside to this brilliant, if unlikely pairing, it's that Krauss's somber program could benefit from something a tad more libidinous or uptempo. But what is
here is so beautifully chosen and performed (with spare, affecting harmony vocals by Lee Ann Womack, Cheryl White, Sidney and Suzanne Cox, and Krauss herself) that it's hard to quibble. Throughout, and especially on the ballad "Wait a Minute" and his own dusted-off "A Woman's Love" (1998), Jackson, who explores his rich, lower register more frequently than in the past, comes across like Don Williams in his prime. He's a middle-aged man taking stock of what and who matters most to him in life, and speaking his heart without artifice. In the title track, a song so bone-marrow deep it might bring you to your knees, Jackson declares, "I love you like all little children love pennies." That line that may sound odd and superficial by itself, but in Jackson's nuanced reading, it takes on a nearly spiritual yearning. This album, like the gospel Precious Memories
before it, proves that while Jackson--the most nominated performer in CMA history--may be nearing 50, he's not ready to quit challenging himself as an artist. --Alanna Nash