here’s a long, rich tradition of country artists recording and releasing gospel songs and albums. The roots of country—the Carter Family, Hank Williams—spring from the seed of gospel music. For decades, most every major country performer would cut gospel records, from Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley to Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton. In recent years, however, that trend has faded; the only country star who’s done so with much significance in the past decade is Randy Travis. (There’s also Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book and Alison Krauss’ Cox Family collaboration in the mid-‘90s, when her star was still on the rise.) The tide may be about to turn in earnest, however—this year’s Dove Award (Christian music’s highest honors) for Country Recorded Song went to Carrie Underwood’s recent smash “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and now there’s Precious Memories, the biggest Christian album to hit country music in at least 20 years.
Word is that Alan Jackson originally recorded this album as a personal, private gift for his mother. Lucky thing, then, that the head of Arista Nashville heard it and basically begged Jackson to let him release it. This collection of hymns was cut with just a couple of backing vocalists, a piano and organ, and a pair of acoustic guitars—that’s how stripped down it is. Gloriously, it suits him; Precious Memories is in many ways the loveliest, truest album in Jackson’s catalog.
Produced by Keith Stegall, arguably Nashville’s finest man behind the boards (he’s produced most every record by both Travis and Jackson, along with work for Terri Clark, Sammy Kershaw, Lorrie Morgan, and George Jones, among others), this album is foremost about the songs. And anyone who’s spent serious time attending a mainstream Protestant church, at least in the U.S., will likely know each and every song here: “Blessed Assurance,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and “How Great Thou Art” are all included, along with other classic hymns such as “Standing on the Promises,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” and “Are You Washed in the Blood?”
If you’re so inclined toward this type of music, you’ll assuredly love Precious Memories. But if you think you’re not, you may be surprised. Jackson’s rich baritone has never sounded better than it does here, due not just to the album’s simple, elegant production but to the conviction with which Jackson sings. From a star of Jackson’s magnitude, it’s a surprise to hear an album sounding so much like the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, but it’s an entirely refreshing one. This is a beautiful, masterful piece of work.