Alan Jackson is like the world's most comfortable pair of boots. Over the past 20 years, the Georgia-born singer and songwriter has amassed an enormous catalog of songs loaded with self-deprecating modesty, gentle tongue-in-cheek humor and unabashed sentimentality, that every so often - whether happy-hour Jimmy Buffett duet "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" or Grammy-winning 9/11 rememberance "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" - resonate on a much deeper level.
Tuesday night, playing his 17th Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo in 18 years (skipping only 2003), Jackson played a 45-minute set that was long on hits and short on frills - unless you count the video-screen footage of family photos during "Drive (For Daddy Gene)," Buffett in concert in "Five O'Clock" and Longhorn and Aggie caps for closer "Where I Come From" - with only a few missteps. One was opener "Good Time," a genial shuffle that nonetheless felt a little forced, like Jackson was trying a little too hard to lift the crowd's spirits - which, considering the rest of the set, was totally unnecessary.
Much better was the next song, the fleet, fiddle-heavy "I Don't Even Know Your Name," which slid Jackson and his band into the pocket and ended as an extended old-fashioned guitar pull. Jackson's fiddle player was a standout all evening, adding down-home earthiness to "Livin' on Love" and displaying a distinct Doug Kershaw influence on up-tempo, Cajun-flavored numbers like "Little Bitty" - reminiscent of the swamp-pop classic "Diggy Liggy Lo" - George Jones' "Tall, Tall Trees" and "Chattahoochee." ("It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie" is a genius lyric, by the way.)
Jackson has always been neck-and-neck with George Strait when it comes to keeping the honky-tonk flame alive in a contemporary Nashville context, and the mini-set of Jim Ed Brown's "Pop a Top," "Tall, Tall Trees" and Merle Haggard-ish "Who's Cheatin' Who" showed he still knows his way around a sawdust floor.
And, of course, he's hardly afraid to go for the heartstrings. Considering Aftermath watched the show sitting next to his dad, a huge Jackson fan, "Drive" - Jackson's tribute to his own sire, who passed in 2000 - choked him up quite a bit, and was easily his favorite song of the evening. Almost as affecting was Aftermath Sr.'s favorite Jackson song, the mandolin-dusted "Remember When," which, thankfully, managed to silence the party of tipsy middle-aged women - previously practicing their "yee-haws" during "Livin' on Love" - sitting next to us, if only for that one song.
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If Jackson's set was short on anything, it was the wry humor of songs like "The Talkin' Song Repair Blues," but we still got a little bit of that during the swampy, electric-slide intro to "Don't Rock the Jukebox," which slyly quoted ZZ Top's "La Grange." (After so many rodeos, Jackson sure knows how to play to the home folks.) And if later hits like recent No. 1 "Country Boy" and "Small Town Southern Man" were a little too by-the-numbers good-ol'-boy, it's only because Jackson really is a good ol' boy - an all but extinct species in Nashville these days - and so is his audience. Tuesday night was all about cornbread and chicken, cold beer and fondly remembered kinfolk, and tugging on the heartstrings while tickling the feet.
Where I come from, it sounded like home.
Paid attendance: 54,945.