Carl Jackson: Musical Dream Maker

Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
April 2018, Volume 52, Number 10

Carl Jackson is a musical architect, bridge builder, and dreamer. He’s a one-of-a-kind man; a humble networker who enriches the lives of others. Jackson’s mantra is, “With each dream that becomes a reality, a new dream lies ahead.” Many of his dreams have come true. He’s not just a gifted musical producer, but a most influential guy who perhaps is singularly responsible for the creation of one of the major bridges between bluegrass and country from the 1960s to the present. His feet are firmly planted in both genres.

Jackson’s humility would cause him to disagree with such homage. Make no mistake; bluegrass and country go together like ham and eggs. Jackson’s body of work in bluegrass and country is unrivaled for its time period. Just as Glen Campbell and Jim & Jesse took a young banjo playing Jackson under their wings, he in turn takes on talented young artists, nurtures them and teaches them to fly on their own. As a good song must have a great title, so must dreams be built on bridges providing artists connections between episodes of their dreams. While he’s fulfilled many of his own dreams, Jackson gets a lot of joy making others’ dreams come true. Our country’s greatest artists want to be affiliated with his projects and clearly love and admire him as a person. This is a man who has reached the epitome of music production in our genres.

The Mail

Carl Jackson with Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell at ASCAP Awards in 2006.

Jackson was born in 1953 in a small clinic above the Strand Theatre in Louisville, Miss. His parents raised him in a musical family and he learned to play multiple stringed instruments. The Jackson family’s deep influences laid the foundation for a young Carl, and the values of his lineage would later become evident in his musical projects.

The trailblazing group Jim & Jesse picked him up as their banjo player after seeing him perform. He did a stint with them for four years and then was fortunate to be Glen Campbell’s banjo player from 1972-1984. These experiences allowed him to develop expertise in multiple facets of music—songwriter, vocalist, instrumentalist, and producer. Jackson has been fortunate to dictate his own path since leaving Glen Campbell and continues to collaborate with the best of the best, including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and so many others. Many of his songs have been recorded by Grammy-winning artists in both bluegrass and country music. His discography is extensive and his body of work is timeless.

As a multiple Grammy-winning artist and multiple IBMA award-winner inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, he’s highly regarded by all who know him. In a span of over fifty years in music, he’s done it all, charting and navigating a course only a man of his unique talents could envision. Jackson plans on being around many years, focusing on future special and solo projects (www.carljackson.net).

June of 2017 saw Universal Records release of Glen Campbell’s final studio album entitled Adios, produced by Jackson for his long-time hero, mentor, and friend. The project includes the last studio recordings of the man who Jackson considers the “greatest singer ever” and includes guests Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and Vince Gill, as well as Jackson’s talented goddaughter Ashley Campbell. Of Jackson, Ashley Campbell says, “He’s the kind of guy that will make you feel like you are capable of anything just by being around him. He is a monster musician and yet never comes across as anything but humble and kind. I am so lucky to have Carl for a godfather and mentor. I wouldn’t be half the musician I am today if it weren’t for his love and guidance.”

The Church Sisters appeared on the Jackson produced projects Orthophonic Joy and Mark Twain: Words & Music. Jackson says, “All talent is God-given, but the Church Sisters possess the natural singing ability only given to vocalists of the caliber of, say, Glen Campbell or Linda Ronstadt. They sing with virtually no effort at all, and the precision of Savannah’s lead and the quality of Sarah’s harmony are simply perfection that cannot be taught, as it’s a gift reserved for a special few.”

Savannah and Sarah sing praises of Jackson: “Carl Jackson has been one of the greatest influences and mentor to us. He’s an incredible songwriter and producer, and us getting to work with him has been a dream come true. He has a heart of gold and we love him.”

Multi-talented Buddy Robertson of Flatt Lonesome sings Jackson’s praises, and says, “Anytime you’re around him, he’s encouraging. He does the Station Inn on Mondays, and he always gets me up on stage. He encourages younger musicians and really a lot of musicians. He’s just a good man who is good to people—nice and encouraging.”

Queens and Kings

If songwriting and production were a deck of cards, Jackson has it in spades. His colleagues admire him and are eager to share insights into their relationships with him.

Dolly Parton and Jackson have collaborated on many projects. Dolly says, “Carl Jackson is one of the greatest singers, stylists, and musicians that has ever been in any style of music. But he is especially amazing with that mountain bluegrass sound. I’ve never heard anybody who has such expression and such emotion. I always get chill bumps every time I hear Carl sing. And when I get a chance to sing with him, it just about freezes me to death! In addition to all that and everybody feeling like I do about him in that respect, he is one of the nicest and greatest people that I’ve ever known in the business. I’ve always considered him like a brother. I appreciate him for all that he does, the way he loves the music business, and all that he’s done for all the different people in the music business. He has contributed to it in so many ways. I could talk all day and not even touch the surface of all the great things that I could say about Carl. So I’ll leave it at that by saying that I will always love Carl Jackson— always have.”

Rhonda Vincent is also a frequent collaborator. In a recent appearance filmed for Country’s Family Reunion, Vincent was able to publicly thank Carl Jackson for his kindness and recommendations. Of her friend, Vincent sums up what so many others say about Jackson. “Carl Jackson is one of the rare people in the music business who helps others unconditionally and without condition, politics, or benefit to himself. In addition to his amazing talent, he is a genuine person who gives of himself with tremendous kindness. He has been very blessed in his life, and he shares those blessings with so many others. I love that man and appreciate him very much for all he has done for me. He is a man who has shown immeasurable generosity to me and so many others. He’s shared his songs, no matter if you’re a new artist or veteran performer or million selling artist. This is evident if you look at the vast amount of artists who have recorded his songs—and multiple times. In 1992, I received a call from Dolly Parton after Carl Jackson had suggested she call me to sing with them on her Slow Dancing With The Moon album. In 1994, Carl suggested I give a CD to James Stroud. The next day, James came back to the studio and said, ‘I wanna work with you. ’ Then there was the time he invited me to sing a duet on a Grammy-winning project titled Livin ’ Lovin ’ Losin A Tribute To The Louvin Brothers. He paired me with newcomer Joe Nichols. I said, I’ve never heard of him.’ Carl said, ‘You will.’ He was right. What an incredible voice. Next was a project titled Mark Twain: Words & Music, where he invited me to sing ‘Run Mississippi.’ This song has become a staple for us.”

Alecia Nugent has known Jackson for about 25 years or so and also considers him a good friend. She warmly recalls, “I called him before Rounder Records picked up my first album and asked him to produce the project. The business arrangements were not totally worked out, but he was willing. He put in the time, picking songs to the last mixing, right from the get-go. We became friends immediately when we sang together. In five minutes, it felt like we were friends for a lifetime.”

Dolly Parton and Carl Jackson writing/singing/recording music

Vince Gill and Jackson have also collaborated for over 25 years, including the timeless hit “No Future In The Past,” which won Gill the 1993 Radio & Records magazine #1 song of the year. Gill has appeared on a number of Jackson produced projects including the Louvin Brothers and Mark Twain projects and more recently on Orthophonic Joy. Vince says, “We’ve been friends since the ’80s and we’ve known each other through bluegrass. As much as we loved and respected bluegrass, we had other dreams about all different kinds of music. We first worked on Emmylou’s Angel Band record. What I love about Carl is that you know how good it’s going to be. Whenever he does a project, he wants to include me, and this is a testament to our friendship. We seem to like a lot of the same things, and that makes for great friends. His attention to quality and detail makes it nice, and to work with people you trust, you know it is going to wind up great when working with Carl. As a fine songwriter, he’s rare, and this is evident, as songwriting is paramount in country music.”

Bradley Walker, currently working with the Gaither Family, met Jackson and Larry Cordle at IBMA in 2000. The two caught Walker’s show and were duly impressed to the extent that Jackson later produced Walker’s first solo project, Highway of Dreams, released in 2006. Walker credits Jackson with teaching him to be a better singer. Walker notes, “Carl has taught me so much about how to sing and work in a studio. He is so talented as a producer, and he’s such a gifted singer. He hears melody and harmony in his head before the music is made, and he has the ability beyond many other producers.”

Jackson, Cordle, and Salley

Like Mantle, Maris, and Berra, this trio of heavy-hitting songwriters and performers are an ultra-talented group that delights audiences on festival, Opry, and Station Inn stages, with many of their original songs, which tell stories of life’s sweet and bitter moments. Most evident is that the three are the best of friends.

Larry Cordle’s friendship with Jackson goes back to 1986 when the two were out on the road with Ricky Skaggs for a weekend. Cordle recalls, “Carl was filling in, playing guitar and singing harmony and from that first meeting, we’ve been friends ever since. I had just moved to Nashville in 1985 and we were both working for Ricky’s publishing company, Amanda Lin Music, through the Welk Music Group. We struck up an easy friendship and began to hangout, write songs together and were soon performing together with our writers’ group that is still active today with our friend Jerry Salley.”

Cordle knew a little about Jackson before becoming friends. “I knew he was a brilliant banjo player from his Jim & Jesse stuff and that he was an indispensable sideman for Glen Campbell for a long time.” Cordle soon found out what an amazing singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jackson was as well. As their friendship grew, they became almost like family. Cordle’s respect for Jackson grew over the years as time and time again Jackson amazed him with all the various aspects of the music business that he had a handle on. Cordle remembers, “We formed a publishing company together with our friend Jim Rushing and shared some wonderful times in that venture together. Carl is one of my oldest and dearest friends of the last thirty years or so. We ’ve traveled the roads together, laughed, cried, written songs I love, did things I could never have imagined doing and thankfully are still doing. I have never met a more honest and sincere person in my life. If Carl tells you something, you can take that to the bank. His friendship is something I treasure, and his knowledge, honesty, and understanding of the business of music is something I have leaned on for many years.”

Jerry Salley recalls that Jackson was the first writer he met in Nashville after college. “We met in 1987. We co-wrote ‘Breakin’ New Ground,’ recorded first by Seldom Scene and later by Alecia Nugent, as well as becoming a Top Ten country hit for the group, Wild Rose. We became close friends and buddies for thirty years.” Through Jackson, Salley met Cordle and they’ve been together since 1992. Salley says, “I’ve learned an awful lot from him, especially his production skills. I try to do my records similarly to his. More than anything, he’s been a close friend.” Jackson wrote the liner notes for Salley’s project New Songs, Old Friends. Salley recalls, “I cried. He is as loyal a person as you’ll ever meet. We do an annual Christmas show in Carl’s hometown and it was debuted there.”

Salley’s newest CD, Front Porch Philosophy, is about ready for distribution. Salley’s dad had two banjo instruction books, one by Carl Jackson and the other by Earl Scruggs. Salley vividly remembers those two banjo books, which inspired him to write an ode to his best buddy: My career just might get a little more traction if I could play guitar like Carl Jackson. Salley has drawn inspiration from real life’s experiences and pieced them into an autobiographical testimony. He adds, “We cherish each show we do because we may not be able to do that again.”

Songwriting, Collaboration, and Business

It would take too many pages to list all the projects and songs in which Jackson has been involved since 1968. He is a songwriter’s guru, and artists regard him as a primary source of quality songs; the kind that win Grammys and IBMA awards. His songs are neither bluegrass nor country, but rather become classified dependent upon instrumentation, lyrics, production, marketing, and the like. Jackson has conducted numerous songwriting workshops and recalls a workshop participant asking what makes a bluegrass song. Jackson’s response: “I’ve written many songs recorded by bluegrass artists.”

He draws inspiration from many sources and likes to share his insight into his songwriting process. “I like to present things to the world that make people feel emotions deeply. When inspired, I try to write three-minute movies and close my eyes and see it unfold. The title of the song is very important, but if you start with an overall concept and idea, that will quickly reveal itself to you. Usually, if not always, I’ll write the chorus first and then fill in. I call it ‘writing backwards.’ I also normally write to meter first, not the final melody. Don’t let artists get mass-produced and pigeon-holed by major labels. There are more opportunities and openings now than in the past.”

Instruments

Young Carl Jackson

Instruments are the tools of the trade, and when one grows up in and rises to the pinnacle of bluegrass and country music, many fine instruments were there for the plucking, with none so cherished as those handed down from family. In 2012, Jackson released an acclaimed solo project, Grace Notes, which is a solo gospel guitar project dedicated to his family members and friends, but mainly to his parents. Twelve different guitars are played with the master’s touch, and Jackson provides the listener with introductory anecdotes about how he came to acquire vintage Martins and other guitars. Jackson’s go-to guitar is his 1957 Martin D-28 and his dad’s 1943 Martin D-28 Herringbone. Jackson fondly speaks of his 1929 Martin 00-21, which was played by Merle Haggard on his The Bluegrass Sessions project. Jackson also holds a deep love for his mid-1800s Martin parlor guitar which he used for the intro to the Grammy-winning “How’s The World Treating You,” performed by James Taylor and Alison Krauss.

As a banjo player, Jackson loves his gold-plated raised-head Gibson Granada, as well as his 1926 Gibson Mastertone acquired in a trade with Jesse McReynolds. Randy Wood recalls, “Carl came to me in the early ’70s, and he wanted me to build a neck for his old Gibson banjo. He was getting ready to play on Hee Haw!”

Passions and Hobbies

Jackson has a wide field of vision. With a man who has big dreams and has accomplished so much, it’s no wonder that he has a passion for things old and antique. He collects baseball cards and is a proud owner of a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card, as well as a 1911 Joe Jackson rookie. Jackson has been a Mickey Mantle and New York Yankees fan for many years. Mantle hit 536 regular season homers, holds the record for most World Series round-trippers with 18, and wore lucky #7. If home runs were hits songs, and Mickey had lived longer, the two could have forged a mutual admiration society of epic proportion. Jackson frequently wears a New York Yankees hat, perhaps symbolic of his 1991 project, Spring Training, with John Starling. Jackson has dreams lying within striking distance of the George Washington Bridge, near a famous baseball stadium located in the thriving borough of The Bronx, N.Y. Perhaps his dream of playing centerfield for The Yankees will come true.

Lee Kotick is a retired educational consultant for programs for students with disabilities. He played guitar with Max Tillman , Denny Gies, Bottom Dollar Boys, and the Larry Rice Band.

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