After the collapse of the Twin Towers, a September 11 mega-anthem loomed even more inevitably than the siege of Baghdad. With the efforts of the super-famous either premature (McCartney’s “Freedom”) or belated (Springsteen’s “The Rising”), the vacuum soon filled with vague patriotism (Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly,” Daniel Rodriguez’s “God Bless America”) and even vaguer vagueness (the All-Star Tribute’s “What’s Going On” and the timeless message that it’s mean to scare celebrities). And at this moment, Alan Jackson’s previous weakness as a Nashville chart topper–an inveterate niceness that compromised his adoption of a sturdy persona–became his greatest strength.
Jackson always sounded like he’d make a better neighbor than he did a superstar. But being polite to your admirers at Fanfest is one thing; advocating mass decency in the face of disaster and burgeoning hatred proved a genuine public service. Its Corinthians quote heartfelt, its inability to distinguish Iraq and Iran both candid and humble, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” made the “healing” process we heard so much about seem a genuine social reality. Jackson acknowledged but ultimately rejected the rage that would later fuel Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and its distressingly accurate presumptions about our national character.
But “Where Were You” never left me sobbing on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; “Drive” has more than once. That emotional response has nothing to do with actual life experience: I half-remember my dad trying to teach me to drive stick once or twice, but that was hardly formative. (And I know for sure he never taught me how to drive a boat.) Like most exercises in nostalgia, “Drive” traffics in the sort of memories we like to imagine ourselves having. But Jackson etches his reminiscences in vivid specifics — the secondhand ’75 Johnson with an electric choke and rotten transom, the afternoons dumping trash alongside Thigpen Road out of the ’64 Ford flatbed — rather than hinting at some hazy prelapsarian past.
In fact, “Drive” looks to the future. Jackson underlines the truth that memories connect us to our elders, and remind us how it feels to have been cared for, so that we can connect as elders ourselves, and care for others. And, yeah, I can’t help but like that in the closing verse, Jackson happens to be teaching his daughters to drive the Jeep. At a time when those trumpeting American superiority made the greatest case against themselves, Jackson quietly made our culture seem genuinely worth defending.