Forever-smooth Alan Jackson and ornery-looking Jamey Johnson would seem to have about as much in common as a butter sculpture and a Midway barker. But both singers who shared the State Fair grandstand stage Friday are all about good country songs. You know, three chords and the truth.
A crowd of 10,773 was treated to an evening filled with superior country songs. You know, songs about living, dying, crying, drinking, dancing and, of course, loving, as Jackson explained early in his set.
Country's most consistent long-run male hitmaker this side of George Strait, the laconic Jackson, 53, has grown more talkative in recent years. He mentioned that this was his sixth appearance at the fair, talked about what sparked some of his songs and declared that some of his ballads were too sad for a Friday night.
He has abandoned his statue-like stage presence of old in favor of roaming around the stage when his band takes solos and tossing guitar picks and rolled up T-shirts to fans. Heck, he even sashayed a bit during "Livin' on Love."
Jackson's baritone voice has grown a bit deeper, but his delivery is still effortless. The tall man with the little mustache, curly mullet and big cowboy hat is all about easy. You know, easy like sipping sweet tea on the front porch on a beautiful Southern afternoon.
His music covers a range of styles in the country oeuvre -- honky tonk boogie, cry-in-your-beer plaints, rockin' blues, heart-warming ballads and pop ditties. Mostly, the messages are about the small-town values he grew up with in Georgia. And he sold them with an aw-shucks modesty, delivering almost every song with the same intensity that fell short of heartfelt, and a little Nashville hokum, ingratiatingly inserting "Minnesota" in the lyrics of several numbers.
Usually what made a song stand out was what was shown on the big video screens behind the country superstar -- whether cute kids in the crowd during "Little Bitty," animation during "Small Town Southern Man" or shots of Twin Cities sites during the festive "Where I Come From" (though including a strip-club logo seemed like a faux pas).
For someone who has had more than two-dozen No. 1 songs, Jackson wasn't afraid to leave out some favorites and throw in some surprises, including Hank Williams Jr.'s "The Blues Man" (featuring the only ache in the singer's voice all night) and this year's surprisingly unsuccessful "So You Don't Have to Love Me Anymore," which sounded like someone's attempt (Jackson didn't write this one, for a change) to write a George Jones song.
The highlight had to be "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," his Sept. 11 tribute, which sounds as potent and relevant today as it did in 2001. Jackson knows that details, emotions, understatement and, of course, timing make a great country song.
There was a certain timelessness to most of what Johnson, 37, sang during his hour-long set. With his stern gaze, furrowed brow and bushy, halfway to ZZ Top beard, he looked like a lonesome, ornery and mean cuss. Sounding like a cross between Waylon and Willie, he delivered some hard truths. His mostly downbeat set had a boozy, late-night vibe, with cutting lyrics that were part swagger and part guilt. The standouts were the Merle Haggard-like "Can't Cash My Checks," his divorce hit "Give It Away," and "Amazing Grace," done like a funeral dirge to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun."
You know, how sweet the sounds of country music.
Set lists: www.startribune.com/artcetera. Twitter: @jonbream 612-673-1719