Thirteen seconds that are as unpretentious as they are indelible: Alan Eugene Jackson, on a sunny Georgia afternoon, in ripped blue jeans, a cowboy hat and a life jacket with a distinctly ’90s color palette, waterskiing with a giant, goofy smile on his face. Despite being the third single from his third LP, the video for “Chattahoochee” was, for most of America, the introduction to Jackson’s charms. It was everywhere in 1993, and it’s brutally efficient in its presentation. Alan Jackson was not a pretty boy of pop country in a cut tank top; he was not a wannabe cowboy carpetbagging in country. He was a regular dude who knew what it was like to hit the river in jeans, and who could fix a jetski in a pinch. One of those guys who you’ve never seen without a hat, their hairline a mystery to everyone but their closest familiars.
And that’s just the imagery from the song’s video. The lyrics to said song play like a 167 second origin story, the part of a superhero movie where you see the kid lose his parents or get bitten by a spider. Jackson grew up on the banks of the Chattahoochee, where he learned everything he needed to: a lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love. He learned the sheer pleasure of power mechanics, the importance of sunscreen when it’s “hotter than a hoochie coochie” and the freedom of having no plans.
“Chattahoochee” was, as we’d call it in the post-social media age, a moment. The song was Jackson’s first entry in the Hot 100 (peaking at No. 46), and dominated the Country charts, ending the year as the No. 1 country song in 1992. It cleaned up at the CMA’s, winning Single of the Year and Song of the Year, and made A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ’Bout Love) into Jackson’s career best-selling album. The record hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts, Top 15 on the Top 200 and sold more than six million copies. It was an unlikely smash with a funny name, but a message basically anyone could understand.
But the supernova moment around “Chattahoochee” seems even more unlikely when you consider the album, and performer, it came from. Jackson is a humble, no-frills performer. He’s a man who seems shy and doesn’t need the spotlight of superstardom, but just found himself in its glow. He doesn’t do many longform interviews, and the video interviews you can find on YouTube take a similar form: Jackson being excessively nice and trying not to put too much of a shine on himself, whether he’s on a red carpet in the ’90s, or giving a speech at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where he was inducted by Loretta Lynn.
A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ’Bout Love) is maybe the most straight-ahead album to top the country charts in the modern era. It’s an album that could have come out in 1992, 2002 or 1972, in that it’s built on the pillars of country music: honest songwriting and a kickass band. It’s an album that strips all artifice and is easy to love; you just get the straight dope of Jackson’s life lessons on everything from romantic disappointment to how to get over a fight with your wife. It’s a rare album that delivers on its title — nothing more, nothing less.
It was not a given that Alan Jackson would enter the pantheon of country music when he first got to Nashville and was working in the mailroom at the Nashville Network (later Spike TV). Jackson grew up in the small Northwest Georgia city of Newnan, Georgia, notable mainly for being the hometown of Jackson and Detroit Lions legend Calvin Johnson. Raised by his mom — who stayed in their small house in Newnan even after Alan’s fame — dad and four sisters, Jackson was brought up almost exclusively on gospel music, before he discovered the music of George Jones and Hank Williams Jr. as a teen. Married at 21 to his wife, Denise Jackson, he played in local bluegrass and country bands. In 1985 at age 27, he took the plunge to move to Nashville to try to make it as a country singer. Jackson worked in the mailroom of TNN — which, at that point, mostly played country music videos, Grand Ole Opry performances and related movies and shows — while Denise helped support his country music dreams as a flight attendant. Within four years, he’d be signed as the first artist to Arista Nashville, which could see the country boom of the ’90s coming and got in the ground floor with Jackson.
Jackson was unique among ’90s country stars from the beginning, in that he was interested in writing his own songs, a thing that became less and less necessary for country singers as the years progressed. On his debut, Here in the Real World, he wrote or co-wrote nine of 10 songs. On his more successful sophomore album, Don’t Rock the Jukebox, he wrote the same percentage, including the beginnings of a partnership writing with Randy Travis (they’d co-write songs on each other’s albums throughout the early ’90s). Don’t Rock the Jukebox became Jackson’s first album of solid hits; it peaked at No. 2 on the Country album charts, and launched three singles to the top of the Country song charts. It also launched Jackson’s role as something of a country music public memory, as “Midnight in Montgomery” tells a condensed story of Hank Williams’ life, as Jackson makes sure to visit the singer’s grave and thank him for inventing modern country.
For his third album, Jackson and producer Keith Stegall assembled a murderer’s row of Nashville pros at various studios around Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee. Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who banged the keys for basically every major country singer you can even think of, was on the piano. On fiddle, there was Stuart Duncan, who played on everything from Iris DeMent’s Infamous Angel (VMP Country No. 11) earlier in 1992 to George Strait records. On pedal steel, they had Weldon Myrick, of the Nashville A-Team, and Paul Franklin, who also played on Strait’s Ocean Front Property. On bass, there was Roy Huskey Jr., the son of prominent session bassist Roy Huskey and a prolific session bassist in his own right. And on guitar, Brent Mason, a musician named by Guitar World as one of the 10 best session guitarists of all time, who has his own signature Fender Telecaster.
All of that to say, the band on A Lot About Livin’ is smokin’. From the opening rubber-laying of the riff of “Chattahoochee” to the syncopated honk-tonk of “Mercury Blues,” this is one of the tightest bands to play between two sides of a record. They can vamp and stomp on “I Don’t Need The Booze (To Get A Buzz On)” and be movingly tender on “If It Ain’t One Thing (It’s You).” The hootenanny they launch on “Up To My Ears In Tears” still hasn’t returned to orbit.
The tight band is what elevates A Lot About Livin’ from a good album to classic, but it’d fall apart without Jackson as its centerpiece. He may be uneasy in the limelight, but when he’s got a mic in his hand, he’s one of the most dynamic country singers in the last 30 years. You could teach a Masterclass on vocal technique exclusively on how he enunciates “Chattahoochee,” and that’s just in the album’s first verse. On “She Likes It Too,” he treats the words like a rubberband, stretching syllables, pulling on the ends of phrases and switching between straight talk and near-yodeling. “Tonight I Climbed The Wall” is where he shows his truest range; the lyrics’ raw account of a marriage requires Jackson to sound sad, hopeful, mad and apologetic at the same time, which he does, selling every line of acquiescence to the fullest.
Jackson’s homage to country history extends beyond his band. He ends A Lot About Livin’ with “Mercury Blues,” a cover of a K.C. Douglas song from the 1940s. Douglas was a blues musician who blended the era’s rural sensibilities with its urban juke blues stylings; in other words, he helped invent honky-tonk from the blues, as opposed to folk or country. It’s a song that became a staple for rock acts like the Steve Miller Band, but also was a favorite of Dwight Yoakam, another country historicist whom Jackson was in musical conversation with throughout their careers in the ’80s and ’90s. Both men chased their muse through bluegrass and the catalogs of Buck Owens, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.
In the 10 songs of A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ’Bout Love), Jackson goes from his own beginnings on the Chattahoochee to a slice of music history. In between, he talks of love lost, love worth fighting for and about getting hammered and being depressed on a beach. “I wrote what I knew about,” Jackson said during his acceptance speech when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And that’s what makes A Lot About Livin’ a masterpiece: It’s a slice of life from a man who’s lived all these songs, right down to the snow cone eaten alone in the front seat.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.