Over the years, Alan Jackson has displayed a talent for channeling his music as a sort of soundtrack for his own life, letting us all read pages from his diary, so to speak—and yet, managing to do it in a way that is honest without being uncomfortably personal. Jackson’s 17th studio album Thirty Miles West is no exception to this rule, as Jackson uses solid old-school country as a backdrop to share vignettes from his life.
A perfect example of this penchant Jackson has for sharing his heart while keeping it accessible is the closing track of the album, “When I Saw You Leaving.” Subtitled “For Nisey,” the song is about his wife’s battle with cancer—and yet, if you didn’t know the back story, you might just think it’s about a breakup. Then you hear a line, “Asking God to let you take her place / Or just take it all away”, and you realize it’s about more than that. Jackson isn’t gushing here; he’s just letting the emotions fuel the lyrics, and yet as his smooth, soothing voice delivers the lines, it is almost comforting—the sugar to help the medicine go down, if you will.
Not that all the personal tunes are that serious—far from it. “Her Life’s a Song” is a sweet tune inspired by Jackson’s three daughters, and the upbeat “Dixie Highway” is an ode to growing up in Georgia—a 7-and-a-half minute jam session featuring fellow Georgian Zac Brown. (As it turns out, Jackson himself lives “thirty miles west” of the Dixie Highway, hence the album title.)
And not that all the songs on the album are deeply personal either; there’s just some good old country songs scattered throughout the album: songs about love, songs about breakups, songs about loving country music—you know the drill. And that segues into two critiques I have of the record: first—that there’s really nothing groundbreaking about the album. It’s personal, even sentimental, but musically, Jackson is basically coasting here. Second—as much as I love country, I’ll be the first to admit that country songs sometimes walk a tightrope between sentimental and trite; and Jackson occasionally lands on “trite.” As evidence, here’s a lyric from the opening track: “Let me just say for the sake of conversation / If there’s such a thing as reincarnation / Don’tcha go cryin’ for me when I’m gone / ‘Cause I’m gonna come back as a country song.” Really? Really?
Even throwing these complaints out there, the good far outweighs the bad on Thirty Miles West. Alan Jackson hasn’t pushed the envelope any, but he has delivered another hit-laden record that’s sure to please the fans—and I’ll include myself in that number.
ALBUM RATING: 3.5 Stars (out of five)