Standing tall in his good-guy white hat, country star Alan Jackson was happy to be there Friday night on stage at the River Center Arena. Laid-back and comfortable, he often expressed his gratitude to the large, enthusiastic, though far from full, house.
Beginning with his 1990 album debut, “Here in the Real World,” country fans have appreciated Jackson’s humble, everyman stance. It seems the main difference between him and most of the rest of us is his gift for encapsulating common experiences about life, love, good times and sad times in the space of a song lasting just a few minutes.
“I actually lived this story a long time ago when I was a young man,” the 54-year-old singer said before he performed “Livin’ on Love.”
Rolling gently yet steadily forward like some rocky, unspoiled creek in the backwoods, the song is one example of how Jackson’s traditionalist country songs combine relaxed warmth and heartfelt expression.
Jackson and his band — an eight-piece group including the two instruments essential to traditional country music, fiddle and steel guitar — opened with one of his good-time hits, “Gone Country.”
The “Gone Country” lyrics tell of three musicians toiling in various genres. Frustrated, they all decide to go country. Jackson had a leg up on all of them. He grew up singing gospel in a small Georgia town near the Dixie Highway.
As calm as Jackson is, he’s also a stealthy master of emotion. Rural, small-town affirmation is among his specialties. Above the honky-tonk lilt of “Small Town Southern Man,” for instance, he pays homage to a good, hardworking man’s life in just a few verses and a chorus that lifts the song to the realm of anthem.
Similar sentiments were expressed in “Little Bitty,” “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and more stories and songs about family, small-town pride and old-fashioned values.
True to form, Jackson’s rendition of “Summertime Blues,” a rebellious rockabilly hit by Eddie Cochran later transformed by Blue Cheer and the Who into explosive, heavy rock, traded the song’s original angst and anger for simple, high-spirited summer fun.
About a dozen songs into his show, Jackson took a seat for an acoustic set. He told the audience how nice it was to play for people who wanted to hear real country music.
“I’ve had more hits than I can remember and sold more records than I can count,” Jackson said.
But he wasn’t an instant success. Jackson’s first single bombed, he recalled. Fortunately, “Here in the Real World,” a touching ballad in the grand tradition of George Jones, came along. Nearly 60 more Jackson hits reached Billboard magazine’s country charts.
As much applause as Jackson got Friday, video shown of Tiger Stadium and LSU football and New Orleans Saints logos inspired the night’s loudest cheers. As Jackson and his band performed “Where I Come From,” footage of bars and churches were the most frequently seen images other than football in the custom-made-for-Baton-Rouge video montage.
Opening the show, singer-guitarist Casey James must have looked familiar to many. In 2010, he finished third in the ninth season of “American Idol.”
The 29-year-old Texas native mixes modern rock, soul and a little blues into his country. His influences include such major roots artists as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dr. John and Doyle Bramhall. Vocally, James resembles Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. His “American Idol” performances included one of Adams’ many hits, “Heaven.”
James and his band failed to make their rendition of Tony Joe White’s naturally funky “Polk Salad Annie” funky, but his own material is good stuff. He’s a talented act to watch.