Maybe It’s Time: Alt-Country’s Portrayal in “A Star Is Born”
Alternative country finds itself with a rich depiction in the recent box-office and critical smash A Star Is Born. With songwriting contributions from artists like Lori McKenna and Jason Isbell plus musical direction from Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (who also played main character Jackson Maine’s backing band), A Star Is Born launched alt-country into the spotlight.
Alt-country has always rested on the outskirts of music. Not entirely accepted by mainstream Nashville. Not entirely embraced by the rock community. Yet alt-country nonetheless receives critical acclaim almost consistently. Much of it is warranted. Some of it is liked simply for being different. But authentic alt-country always rises to the top. See, alt-country isn’t just about recording something that’s different than Nashville. It’s not just about trying to be different for the sake of being different. And Bradley Cooper’s performance as Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born is the ideal vision of a modern alt-country artist.
Bradley Cooper is on record saying much of the inspiration for Jackson Maine’s artistry in terms of look and mannerisms came from Pearl Jam’s legendary lead singer Eddie Vedder. Yet Jackson Maine’s music is distinctly alt-country. In fact, Jackson Maine is America’s first alt-country superstar. While remembering Maine is a movie character, it’s impossible not to dwell on the best characteristics of his artistry. His songs travel the entire scope of alt-country from inward-looking compositions about the human condition (“Maybe It’s Time”), dark rockers (“Black Eyes”), and instrument-driven ballads (“Too Far Gone”). Jackson’s duets with Ally were also special, from the smash of the movie “Shallow” to the soundtrack album cut “Music to My Eyes.”
In an ideal world, there would be an artist in the Americana world who could appeal to the mass audience like Jackson Maine. Someone with the lyrical ability of Jason Isbell but with a greater ability to connect with mainstream listeners. That’s basically who Jackson Maine is. In the movie, he’s clearly selling out large venues (including being the headliner of a festival it appears), big enough to make Ally go viral after their duet of “Shallow,” and has enough respectability to be tapped for a Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammy’s. In a sense, Jackson Maine is the alt-country superstar the 1990s never had, and the type of Americana superstar today’s country music is waiting for.
The music itself deserves a deeper analysis. The standout track to me, and the one that hasn’t been talked about enough, is “Too Far Gone.” It’s only a minute and a half, and Bradley Cooper is on record as saying he wants to make the song a finished product. The song starts off with some acoustic guitar before some steel guitar and Promise of the Real percussions blend nicely into the background. Above all the other songs, “Too Far Gone” is the one that most exemplifies raw, unfiltered alt-country. It’s a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone or Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac. Cooper co-wrote it with Lukas Nelson, and though there are only two verses, the song still packs a punch of emotion as Cooper pleads for there to be more life left to live.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Black Eyes.” Another Cooper-Nelson co-write, “Black Eyes” leans more to the rock side of alt-country. One of the first things I noticed about “Black Eyes” after listening several times was the continuous strumming of the same guitar chord to kick off the song…eerily reminiscent of the repetitive chords that begin Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” The listener can just imagine Jackson Maine starting off every one of his shows to “Black Eyes.”
“Diggin’ My Grave” can be found early in the movie, as Jackson goes through soundcheck the night after meeting Ally. The scene only has Jackson strumming the first couple of chords, but the soundtrack contains the full song. Spanish guitar opens the tune, and the rest of song is thematically as country as can be with the story of unfaithful lovers. “Diggin’ My Grave” possesses some seriously strong instrumentation, particularly the Willie Nelson-esque guitar solo about two minutes in.
One of the greatest moments on the soundtrack is the back to back of the instrumental “Out of Time” leading right into “Alibi.” “Out of Time” starts off as an alt-country jam before transitioning into full-bore rock and roll. The guitar work is bluesy, and the listener knows something big is coming toward the end as the guitar licks pick up pace. “Alibi” is a straight-up Lukas Nelson song. After seeing Nelson and his band in concert this past summer, I can really imagine the outfit playing “Alibi” live. The steady bass line, the guitar licks, the lyrics. The Promise of the Real influence is heavy.
But of course, “Maybe It’s Time” deserves all the plaudits it’s recieving. From the first couple of lines, a well-informed viewer of the movie can immediately tell “Maybe It’s Time” is a Jason Isbell-penned song. The theme of a man’s life changing from old to new is a classic Isbell trope. Sentimentality mixed with a heavy dose of forward-looking optimism delivered powerfully by Bradley Cooper makes “Maybe It’s Time” one of the songs of the decade.
Bradley Cooper’s duet with Lady Gaga is magical. It’s the ultimate alt-country meets pop superstar moment. Think Ryan Bingham singing with Ariana Grande. Or Jason Isbell singing with Beyonce. It’s that kind of thing. “Shallow” is a special song. Worthy of all the praise. Worthy of all the attention. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real delivered a fantastic, award-winning performance for the music. Cooper and Gaga were authentic as could be vocally, sounding as though they’d been singing together for years. “I’m off the deep end/watch as I dive in…”
Their smash duet leads nicely into the musical dynamic of Jackson and Ally’s relationship. Jackson is portrayed as the authentic, moody alt-rocker. An artist not willing to compromise his musical vision. Ally, on the other hand, begins her career as Jackson’s partner. A folksy, Americana, hippie-chic style artist who finds herself soon eclipsing the spotlight of Jackson’s waning career. She signs to a record label before finding her music lost in the chaos of background dancers and lip-synced vocals on an SNL performance. Yet there’s something to be admired about Ally’s career path. She always seemed to be uneasy with the direction her music was taking. Not happy with the background dancers. Not happy with being forced to change her hair color. Ally nonetheless goes along with the changes in order to become a star-something more real to the music industry (particularly mainstream Nashville) than most would care to acknowledge.
Jackson tried to get Ally to remain true to herself before drunkenly saying he failed her and that she was an ugly person for, in his mind, losing herself in order to become a star. Jackson’s message was delivered in the wrong manner, but there’s hints throughout the movie that Ally struggled herself with what kind of artist she wanted to be. Yet in Ally’s last performance of the movie, “I’ll Never Love Again,” she finds the perfect blend of folksy Americana and mainstream pop. It’s clearly her vision. And though it may not be alt-country or rock, it’s no doubt true to who Ally is.
Jackson Maine’s struggles with his own demons cannot be ignored in the alt-country context. He struggles with booze and pills throughout the movie, embarrassing himself and others to varying degrees. At one point toward the beginning of the movie, Jackson’s brother (and manager) says to Ally after helping him into bed, “You think he drinks too much? Sweetie, you have no idea.” It’s no exaggeration to say Jackson drinks *a lot.* Like George Jones in the late 70s-early 80s.
Alt-country is not unfamiliar with drinking, pills, and personal demons. There’s something ingrained in the culture of alt-country that wholeheartedly embraces the idea of the tortured artist. Think of all the artists considered alt-country or influential to the genre who have acknowledged and spoke openly about their demons. Sturgill. Jason Isbell. B.J. Barham. Ryan Adams. Jeff Tweedy. Steve Earle. Margo Price. Then think of all the artists who had problems but never made it out alive to speak about their troubles. Gram Parsons. Gene Clark. Townes van Zandt. And the father of all country music himself- Hank Williams. Booze, pills, the Lost Highway. Jackson’s struggles, in all sincerity, are not idealized. His struggles are not exaggerated. Ask Isbell or Barham. They’ll tell you about the hell they went through. It was important for movie audiences across the nation to see the demons Jackson Maine was fighting and the dangers, risks, and outcomes of crossing that line.
And it’s important for so many artists out there to realize that the idea of a tortured artist is not a requirement for success. You don’t have to stay sober. But you don’t have to cross that line into addiction if you can help it. Or, as Sturgill famously sings, “Keep it between the lines…”
Jackson Maine’s artistic portrayal in A Star Is Born is what many of us hope to see musically from an alt-country artist. Super-stardom without compromising an artistic vision. Alternative country encompasses a wide array of sounds. From Isbell-esque Americana to punk country a-la Uncle Tupelo. But what so many of us hope to see is an alt-country rocker willing to tear down the doors of mainstream music. Not content to sit on the sidelines and play to small crowds. Not content to just be named on year-end lists. But an artist who possesses an innate desire to record music true to his or her own self. And a desire to play that music to arenas full of people.