Alan Jackson can't help but wonder: Where did the "real" country music go?
"Right now, it seems like it's gone," said Jackson, who headlines Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday. "It's not that I'm against all that's out there. There's some good music, good songwriting and good artists out there, but there's really no country stuff left."
The 54-year-old singer/songwriter with two Grammy Awards and nearly 60 million albums sold worldwide doesn't hate the slick, pop sound that has become increasingly ingrained in country music. He just wishes the radio would balance things out with more traditional-sounding artists, too.
"It's always been that constant pop-country battle. I don't think it's ever going to change," Jackson said. "What makes me sad today is that I think the real country, real roots-y traditional stuff, may be gone. I don't know if it'll ever be back on mainstream radio. You can't get it played anymore."
There's some truth to his assertions, but the man talking is still Alan Jackson, a songwriter with 35 No. 1 country singles to his name. Country radio can ignore the sound he loves most, but it cannot ignore a consistent hitmaker such as Jackson.
In June 2012, he proved his pen was still sharp with the release of his 17th studio album, "Thirty Miles West." As is always the case with a Jackson album, "Thirty Miles West" is filled with the singer's keen observations. His eye for detail in lyrics remains one of Jackson's strongest assets as a songwriter.
"They called me observant but now they call me nutty. I run my wife crazy," Jackson said. "More than anything, I'm just real visual. I just see things. I visualize things in my head when I write these songs."
The album's vivid closing track, "When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey)," is about Jackson's wife, Denise, and her December 2010 cancer diagnosis. Jackson described the time as "a total shock for us like it would be for anybody." Denise is now cancer-free, and the song written in her honor now helps fans through their own experiences.
"I'm glad that I did it now. I just think it's a good message," Jackson said. "Once so many people heard that, that had been through a similar thing with somebody they knew — a family [member] or friend — I got a lot of comments that it meant a lot to them."
After "Thirty Miles West" was completed, Jackson turned his attention to a project he had eyed since the mid-'90s. With the help of his band member Scott Coney, Jackson recruited acclaimed bluegrass musicians to create "The Bluegrass Album," which will be released Sept. 24. (And on Oct. 28, Jackson will perform songs from the new record for a special concert at New York's Carnegie Hall.)
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For Jackson, performing bluegrass — the improvisational American roots music made with acoustic-stringed instruments — is a matter of respect.
"I wanted to pay my respects to it because I think it's a great genre and it's real close to country," Jackson said. "Bluegrass is one of the last American music [genres] that's stayed somewhat close to its roots."
Whether it's bluegrass or traditional country, Jackson remains devoted to the craft of songwriting. It's a puzzle that never bores him.
"Every time you make an album or write a song, it's a challenge to do it," Jackson said. "I think that's still it - making the records, whether it's country or whatever it is. Making the new music has always been the most fun for me."