(Photo by: Jim Shea)
Tony Jackson is on the move.
As we talk, the country music singer is navigating traffic in mid-town Manhattan — “Thank goodness I’m not driving; these people are crazy,” he says — on his way to a meeting with higher-ups at SiriusXM satellite radio. The Richmond-based performer is promoting his debut solo single, “Drink by Drink,” which has been climbing the country charts and performing, as he says, “way better than expectations.”
Jackson is best known in and around Richmond as the voice behind Jackson Ward, a popular local band that released an impressive debut CD last year, “Goodbye Trouble.” But his emerging success as a solo artist is putting all that on hold for now. One of the band’s final gigs will be at the State Fair of Virginia in October. This month, they’re scheduled to appear at Pocahontas Live on July 21 on a bill with Montgomery Gentry (Pocahontas State Park, 7 p.m., $25 general admission) and the Hanover Summer Nights series on July 28 (Ruritan Cold Harbor Park, 8131 Walnut Grove Road, 5 to 10 p.m., free admission).
“We’re not breaking up,” Jackson maintains. “It’s just that I’ve got this solo thing going on right now.”
And that solo thing is looking very, very good. With an expressive singing style infused with pure vocal honey, Jackson is a welcome anomaly in the country music genre. In one way, the friendly, goateed vocalist is a throwback to classic sounds — Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lefty Frizzle, Waylon Jennings — with only a courtesy nod to the “bro-country” currently assailing radio. He’s also an African-American man singing country music. Other than Charley Pride and (of late) Darius Rucker, there haven’t been a whole lot of those.
It was the sound from his throat, not the color of his skin, that caught the attention of his new managers, Donna Dean Stevens and Jim Della Croce. A self-produced demo that he cut at Sound of Music studios of George Jones’ iconic weeper, “The Grand Tour,” made them take notice.
“I was so impressed by his voice,” says Stevens. The widow of singer and sausage company founder Jimmy Dean, she had her own country career as Donna Meade. “It blew me away,” she says. “I thought, ‘This guy is wonderful.’ ” Stevens asked Jackson if he would like to be a guest performer on her reincarnation of the venerable Old Dominion Barn Dance at the Henrico Theatre. His version of “The Grand Tour” brought the house down and he was asked to be a regular cast member.
While Jackson was born in Portsmouth and his family roots are in the Ashland area, the singer spent his childhood as a self-described Navy brat, living on bases all over the world. His dad, Tony Jackson Sr., listened to a lot of music around the house, but not country. “I heard Earth, Wind and Fire, classic Motown, George Benson. But I first got exposed to country through Armed Forces Radio,” he says. When he was a pre-teen, there was also a fortuitous encounter with a country superstar.
“My dad was stationed in Rota, Spain, and we kids kind of had the run of the base. One day this guy comes up to us and starts asking us questions about what it’s like to live on a military base in Spain. Real nice guy, and of course we started eating it up, this man talking to us and asking us questions like it was important.”
The inquisitive stranger turned out to be singer Randy Travis, who was performing on the base that night. “I didn’t realize it until I saw him on the stage. It turned me on to his music.”
With his solo single climbing the charts, Jackson is working on a full-fledged solo album, recording with the likes of Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs) and John Sebastian at RCA Studio B in Nashville, famous for waxing timeless hits by Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton and, yes, Charley Pride.
“You can definitely feel the magic when you walk into that place,” he says. “The fact that I would be recording with people like Willie Nelson’s harmonica player [Mickey Raphael] is so unreal.”
Although he’s in it now for the long haul — having recently given up a lucrative, six-figure IT job with Bank of America to pursue music — Jackson didn’t originally plan on having a singing career. He joined the Marine Corps after high school, served four years and was later re deployed during the Iraq War. He says that contrary to what you might think, serving in the military has helped him navigate the often-heady world of entertainment.
“When you are in the service, you learn to bond. These are your brothers, even if you’ve never met them before. So I can connect with anyone, with any crowd.”
The race thing, he says, rarely comes up. “I haven’t had a single problem in all of the places I’ve sung,” he says. “But one of the things I do hear from people after a show is, ‘I’m not a country music fan, but I really like what I just heard.’ You see, I think that everybody likes country music, but most people just don’t know it yet.”