Alan Jackson’s Drive recently spent three weeks as America’s best-selling album, a reign sandwiched between the top-spot tenures of Creed’s Weathered and J. Lo’s new remix collection. Jackson’s double-platinum release, among the most consistent albums of the singer’s career, certainly deserves the attention. On Drive, the shuffles scoot, the ballads simmer and hum with understated ache, and the plainspoken lyrics evoke working-class lives with self-effacing, regular-Joe charm. Best of all, Jackson’s singing voice, a confident albeit not particularly distinctive Georgia drawl, has grown more nuanced and supple through the years. When he fondly recalls driving his dad’s old boat in the title track, then hopes his own kids will cherish similar memories of their father, or when he confesses how miserable he feels without his baby in the elegant “A Little Bluer Than That,” he perfectly embodies the songs’ beaming and weeping characters.
Then again, none of these elements explains the album’s success. After all, except for the addition of a bit more mandolin and acoustic guitar in the mix (thanks, perhaps, to that other recent country-on-the-pop-chart champ, O Brother), this is pretty much the same tradition-minded country record Jackson and producer Keith Stegall have been releasing every year and a half since 1989’s Here in the Real World. No, Drive took over the pop charts for one reason only: “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Jackson’s heartfelt response to the horrors of September 11. The song (included here twice, in studio and live versions) effectively captures the variety and depth of emotion felt by millions in the wake of the attacks. Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor, or did you just sit down and cry? Jackson sings, and he sounds on intimate terms with all three reactions.
But “Where Were You” is problematic, too, especially in its chorus. I’m just a singer of simple songs; I’m not a real political man, Jackson tells us in the same “Little Man” persona that has long accounted for much of his appeal. I watch CNN/But I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran/But I know Jesus. Jackson’s presentation of ignorance as a just-folks, out-of-my-hands virtue, followed by a religious reference that, in this context, can’t help but reinforce the difference between us and them — flattering the former, calling out the latter — well, it turns out this was all a big part of the problem in the first place.
Of course, beating a retreat from tragedy by taking refuge in the security of home and the consolations of theology is a decidedly human impulse. For that reason alone, Jackson’s reaction is worthy of being captured in song. But it can’t be stressed enough that such a make-the-world-go-away response is, as a practical option, pure fantasy — as life never fails to remind. It’s perfectly natural, Jackson notes earlier in “Bring on the Night,” to want to shake off trouble by shrugging our shoulders, lock[ing] the world outside, and throw[ing] away the key. Here in the real world, though, we know all too well that’s never, ever enough.