Story Jason Browne | Photographs Bill Steber
Carl Jackson practically rode out of Louisville on his banjo.
Recruited as a picker for a nationally-recognized country act at the age of 14, he split his time between the road and his hometown in the Mississippi hill country before signing on for a 12-year stretch out of high school with country idol Glen Campbell. His fingers and his voice were good enough to spawn a solo career, but his knack for storytelling earned Jackson a quiet place amongst country music’s all-stars, three Grammys, and the chance to pay homage to America’s greatest storyteller.
The banjo part of Jackson’s story is impressive enough on its own, but in this retelling it’s merely background.
On a random Saturday in 1967, young Carl Jackson just wanted to listen to Ole Miss football on the radio. He wasn’t interested when his dad asked him to go to Reform, Ala., to catch a bluegrass show. But dads tend to call the shots, so young Carl reluctantly made the trip.
To nobody’s surprise, after watching Jim and Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys perform, Jackson was mesmerized.
“I fell in love with it,” he said — “It” in this case being the exchange of energy between musicians and a live audience.
Jackson’s dad was able to get the two backstage afterward to meet the band, where a banjo wound up in young Carl’s hands for an impromptu audition. Several months later, Jackson was offered a spot in the band.
Young Carl, you see, was no fluke. His father, Lee, and two uncles had a bluegrass band called the Country Partners, which was popular enough locally to land them their own radio show. Carl’s inevitable banjo lessons began at the age of 8.
By the age of 14, Jackson was touring all summer and some of the school year with the Virginia Boys. His principal didn’t care as long as he kept his grades up.
The cycle would repeat in 1972 when Jackson went to the Ohio State Fair to see country juggernaut Glen Campbell and wound up in a conversation with Campbell’s banjo player, who, oddly enough, had heard of Jackson. Once again, a job was offered, and Jackson toured with one of his idols for 12 years.
After parting ways with Campbell in 1984, Jackson’s days as someone’s banjo player were finished. It was time to move to the front of the stage where he cracked Country’s Top 40 several times.
But it was a reunion with Campbell that put Jackson on the path toward his greatest success and landed him in the Top 10 for the first time when Campbell recorded Jackson’s song “Letter To Home.” Then Jackson penned his first No. 1, “No Future In the Past,” for Vince Gill and Pam Tillis.
It’s hard enough to make it to country music’s major leagues once, but the banjo prodigy reinvented himself using another skill, which, it turns out, he’s even better at than picking. Banjo playing you can practice. Songwriting you either have in you or you don’t. And Jackson has it down to a science.
“I’ve developed it to the point that I can sit down with someone and come up with something that’s pretty good,” he says.
He schedules writing sessions where he bangs out hits like they’re thank-you notes. He crafts entire songs based on nothing more than a title. He uses the voice recorder on his iPhone to save lyrics and melodies he thinks up while he’s driving.
But Jackson has the romantic aspects of storytelling covered, too. He prefers to write in solitude. He finishes incomplete songs years after he starts them and his notebook is full of 10-year-old material patiently waiting for his finishing touch. And he never sets out with the intent to write a hit; they just end up that way.
If you look at the list of artists who have recorded Jackson’s songs, names jump out that even non-country fans recognize, like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley. Look at his writing credits you’ll see songs like “Erase the Miles” and “Little Mountain Church House” that have been covered again and again by different artists because the lyrics and arrangements appeal on so many levels that everyone has to put their stamp on Jackson’s work.
Those are the songs Jackson plays each year when he returns to Louisville from Nashville to do his annual charity Christmas show benefiting the historic Strand Theater. He trots out the greatest hits everyone demands to hear, and maybe some of the songs which have won him a Grammy or two. But he’ll also work in new material for the hometown crowd. The 2011 show will likely feature several cuts from Jackson’s latest project, “Mark Twain: Words and Music,” an all-star album executive produced and co-written by Jackson which captures Twain’s essence in song and spoken word thanks to contributors like Sheryl Crow, Jimmy Buffet, Emmylou Harris and none other than Clint Eastwood inhabiting the role of Samuel Clemens.
Carl Jackson is the total package — master musician, songwriter, storyteller. It should come as no surprise he’s been tapped to receive the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in Music and will be honored in a February ceremony in Jackson. One more way for his peers, and his home state, to tip their hats to the Louisville picker who has never forgotten where he came from.