Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
To this day, my mom has been absolutely obsessed with Alan Jackson. She’s owned every record in some form through the years, from vinyl to cassette tape and compact disc. If she were tech savvy, she would be streaming the bejesus out of him. When “Here in the Real World” hit radio and ultimately became a stone cold Top 3 finisher, it was right around the time my family was torn apart. I can remember it clearly: perched on the edge of our dingy, flannel sleeper sofa, tears staining my cheeks and my father packing up all of my belongings. My mother awaited outside, her coal-black Monte Carlo humming tensely and impatiently outside in the sub-temperature. That week began one of the most crucial in my young life; I learned how much words could make you bleed, how life wasn’t so simple as TV made it out to be and how I would never be quite the same.
“Cowboys don’t cry, and heroes don’t die. Good always wins, again and again, and love is a sweet dream that always comes true. Oh, if life were like the movies, I’d never be blue,” Jackson unravels on the opening verse, setting the tone for one of the most lonesome and moving examples of country balladeering in history. “But here in the real world, it’s not that easy at all ’cause when hearts get broken, it’s real tears that fall. And darlin’ it’s sad but true, but the one thing I’ve learned from you is how the boy don’t always get the girl here in the real world.”
With Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks sharing producer duties, the 1990-released double-platinum Here in the Real World became a trademark for the neo-traditionalist revolution of the late-80s, ushering in a return to form for classic country storytelling. The movement was also anchored with the work of Randy Travis, Clint Black, Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt, leading the format to significantly shed its pop ways (for a short time, anyway) and open up for a wider range of styles to be included. Standouts like “Blue Blooded Woman” (which peaked at No. 45, if you can believe that), “Wanted,” “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” “She Don’t Get the Blues” and “Home” wield tender, heartfelt simplicity but pack an emotional wallop–drenched with Jackson’s frank vocal style.
“They made their house from a tool shed Grandaddy rolled out on two logs. And they built walls all around it. And they made that house a home,” he yearns on “Home,” a finger-plucked ditty laced with love, gloomy nostalgia and a hurt not often felt by today’s leading men. “My mama raised five children, four girls, and there was me. She found her strength in faith of God and a love of family,” he later croons, tapping the sappy idealisms of middle America, with supple naivety and optimism. Jackson has always had a way to transplant life’s simplest and most straightforward of truths into profound proverbs, universally felt regardless of background. “You know that country song, ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?’ I don’t know whether I can fill ’em, but I’d sure like to try ’em on,” the singer wrote in the album’s liner notes. As the flagship artist of Sony’s Arista Records, his blockbuster success not only propelled him to become one of country’s tallest legends but allowed the label to become one of the biggest players on Music Row, leading to such later signees as Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood.
In the wake of such a defining career album, he has gone on to set the gold standard for modern country music, despite a random troll account declaring him the death of the format. There has never been a time he didn’t hold the roots of the storytelling medium close to his heart but always with a keen eye for what the future could be. Sure, country radio in 2017 might be mostly dumpster fire, but without Jackson, we might not have such boldly traditional acts like Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan vowing to bring back a little authenticity to the game. I am forever grateful to Jackson for teaching me the devastating and brittle reality of the world, at only four years old. It might have been decades later before I could muster up the strength to face my demons, but “Here in the Real World” remains the song that changed my life forever.
Now, who’s gonna fill Jackson’s shoes?
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