The Minnesota State Fair has gone country, to paraphrase the first song country superstar Alan Jackson delivered Sunday night at the grandstand.
For the third consecutive night, the fair presented a big-name country act — something the Great Minnesota Get Together hasn’t done since 1996. After back-to-back sellouts of by Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, Jackson came a few Pronto Pups short of a sell out on Sunday with 12,247 fans.
He also came up a little short in his generosity — a mere 80 minutes and 18 songs (he’s been playing between 23 and 27 songs at other shows). With 26 No. 1 singles in his 25-year recording career, Jackson left a lot unsung.
Nonetheless, it was a fairly satisfying concert, one that lived up to the name of Jackson’s current Keepin’ It Country Tour. In a country landscape filled with brash bro-country and twanged-up ’80s pop-rock, he kept it traditional. Playing everything from honky-tonk hoedowns to somber ballads with lots of fiddle and pedal steel guitar, he sang about, as he explained, life, love, heartache, dying, crying and drinking.
Unlike George Strait and Garth Brooks, Jackson, 56, writes almost all of his songs – and doesn’t get enough credit as a songwriter. Many of his hits trade on a clever punchline, such as last night’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” but he’s a master at writing sentimental songs with simplicity, directness and restraint.
The momentum of Sunday’s concert seemed to turn on “Drive,” a song Jackson explained that he wrote when his father died. “I didn’t want to write an old sad thing,” he said in his Georgia drawl. So he penned a lilting ballad about how his dad let him drive trucks, cars and a boat – and he delivered it with an ache in his voice and more emotion than he’d offered in the previous eight songs combined.
The palpable passion continued on the ensuing “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Jackson’s reflection on Sept. 11. It was the only song all night that didn’t feature the video clip accompaniment on a giant screen behind Jackson. His voice cracked a bit during the final line and then he held his final note a little bit longer. That song and that spirit still resonates today in Jackson’s hands.
There was only one clunker, “Country Boy,” a one-dimensional country-blues strut that almost sounds like an early blueprint for bro-country. Jackson offered one new number from his current album, “Angels and Alcohol.” He said “You Never Know” was inspired by Hank Williams Sr. and Charlie Daniels but this good-time country boogie sure sounded like Chuck Berry should share songwriting credit.
This, Jackson’s seventh performance at the grandstand, was similar to his last appearance there in 2012. The differences were subtle – his mullet is gone, he tossed more rolled up T-shirts and guitar picks to the crowd, and he attracted nearly 2,000 more people.
Jackson brought along a fitting opener in Brandy Clark, an award-winning songwriter who is trying to gain recognition as a singer-songwriter. With all the first-rate songs she performed, no one would confuse her with 1990s country star Terri Clark, who also played the fairgrounds on Sunday. Geez, the fair really has gone country.
Twitter: @JonBream 612-673-1719