Tuesday night wasn't Alan Jackson's first Rodeo. It was actually his astounding 18th appearance on the trademark revolving stage at the annual carnival of steers, beers and... barbecue off Kirby. As his rodeo career officially turned legal, the man turned in a solidly in-the-pocket performance and managed to remind us what country used to look like. Alan Jackson comes from a time after George Strait's rise and right before the Garth Age, when you could still get away with modesty and on the merit of your tunes rather than pandering to fads or, worse yet, watering down your sound to fit a radio playlist. Jackson's career is as sturdy and well-built as any pickup truck rolling off the line from Dearborn in the '60s and just as dependable. Country stars of Jackson's era are getting better as they age. These guys aren't slowing down, and their albums are getting progressively more grizzled. They don't shop much out either; Jackson wrote the entirety of his last studio album, Good Time. Sadly, that feat has become a rarity in modern country in the last decade.
Hopping right out of a Ford pickup and onto the stage with Tom T. Hall's "Little Bitty," Jackson waltzed through a set of his best beloveds, stopping every few minutes to reflect on his past RodeoHouston stands. Thankfully, he's not a loud man or a boaster. Older country cats like Jackson come out, get their work done and leave without much incident or fanfare. Almost from the start of his career, Houston has only known him as a Rodeo headliner, but he treats the audience like he could be playing in their backyard. The first single from the soon-to-be-released Freight Train, "It's Just That Way," comes in the middle of the set and is the probably the closest thing that Jackson has gotten to a country slow-jam. In the past few years he has grown progressively slinkier, and this one is a burner aimed squarely at the aging cowboys in the crowd going home with their suburban cowgirls. The characters that Jackson inhabits in his songs aren't bitter or angry men; they are just weathered and worn nose-to-the-grindstone folks who don't ask for much. That's what makes him endearing even 20 years into his journey.
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"Remember When" is a lost gem from one of his last greatest-hits albums and is one of the most heart-rending and honest descriptions of a life spent raising children and actually growing old with another person in a marriage. A collective "aww" went across the crowd as the introductory mandolin came in, and a sea of graying boomer pairs and younger couples all moved in closer together. Whenever Aftermath hears this song, he can't help but think of his own parents aging and watching the world change in front of them. That's a weighty achievement for any country tune from any era. [Ed Note: Happened to us too.]
He closed with "Chattahoochee" and "Where I Come From," throwing down two of his biggest hits within five minutes of one another, and stopping the early leavers in their tracks to turn and do a little singing and dancing. Most rodeo shows practically beg the audience to cut out a few minutes early and beat the crowds, but Jackson isn't one of them in the slightest.
For more photos of the rodeo and the concert, check out our slideshow.