At 8, Carl Jackson sat in front of a record player at home in Louisville, Mississippi, slowing down records by Earl Scruggs, Alan Shelton and Don Reno to learn the licks and augment his few live lessons.
At 14, he went on the road with bluegrass duo Jim & Jesse, fulfilling at least one childhood dream at an age most kids are adjusting to high school.
At 19, Jackson stood alongside Glen Campbell as a member of his band, introduced by the country star as “the finest banjo player I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.”
“It was just a lot of God behind all that,” says Jackson, now 66, looking back at the Grammy-winning, do-everything music career that followed and wrapped in singing, songwriting, record producing, mentorship and more. “Being in the right place at the right time has been something that’s happened so much in my life.”
Right place, right time is just one part of the equation. Right stuff is the other, and that’s what Jackson brought. Sure, he was right there at crucial junctures. But as Dolly Parton puts it in a Mississippi Public Broadcasting documentary in the works, “He had to knock somebody’s socks off in order to get there.”
The documentary “Meet Carl Jackson,” scheduled to air in January, is a companion piece to Ken Burns’ epic “Country Music” film airing and streaming this fall on PBS. Jackson may not be a household name to casual country music fans, but “He’s your favorite’s favorite,” says John Gibson, MPB’s director of television and one of the documentary’s producers. “Every single person we contacted — and this never happens with documentaries — said yes, if they could work it into their schedule.” That includes Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and dozens more.
“What comes through in interviews is how much they respect Carl’s talent and how much they respect him as a person,” Gibson says.
Jackson was introduced to music early on by his dad, Lethal, and his Uncle Socks, who had a little bluegrass band in Louisville, The Country Partners. “Nothing pleased my dad more than me wanting to play banjo,” Jackson says. Supportive parents reluctantly let him tour with Jim & Jesse at 14, knowing that’s where his dreams led.
At 18, Jackson and then-bandmate Keith Whitley went see Glen Campbell at the Ohio State Fair. A chance encounter with Larry McNeely, Campbell’s banjo player, after the show turned into an invitation to come pick together the next day.
“He kept asking me to play a lot of tunes. I didn’t realize what he was doing but he was pretty much auditioning me for the part,” Jackson says.
His classmates’ prediction — “See you on ‘Glen Campbell’ one day,” scrawled in his senior
yearbook in the era of TV’s “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour”— was about to come true. Jackson followed McNeely to the next trailer over and “There sits my hero, Glen.” Campbell put him through the same hoops, then asked if he could play “The Claw,” an intricate instrumental by Jerry Reed.
“I’d probably hate if somebody put a gun to my head and made me try to play it right now. I might could get through it,” Jackson says, laughing. “But I could at the time, for sure.” He did. Campbell looked over at him and asked, “How much would you like to make?”
“At 18 years old at that time, I looked over back at him and said, ‘A million bucks.’ If he could joke with me, I could joke with him,” Jackson chuckled. He had the job.
Jackson stayed with Campbell’s band for 12 “incredible years, all over the world, and he
featured me on every show that he ever did,” and put his name on marquees, too. “He was such a selfless person, he was wonderful.” They remained close friends, up to Campbell’s death in 2017.
Jackson produced Campbell’s last studio album, “Adiós,” “which I treasure — that time that we got to spend in the studio together.” When people say that must have been hard, as Campbell battled Alzheimer’s, “I tell ’em, ‘Well, we laughed a whole lot more than we cried.’ Glen handled that better than anybody I’ve ever seen. When he’d forget something, he’d just kid about it, and we’d go on.” Jackson typed out songs in big letters; sometimes, the star would do a line at a time.
“He was so gifted as a singer, that you can’t tell it. It’s flawless. And he still sang with perfect pitch, like always. So there he was, with Alzheimer’s … right about 80 years old. Just amazing. He was the best.”
“Adiós” ranks among a handful of high points that, when pressed, Jackson will whittle from a long list of musical achievements that span decades in Nashville. The category also includes his production, “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ — Songs of the Louvin Brothers” (2003 Grammy winner for Country Album of the Year, and a Grammy win for its duet featuring James Taylor and Alison Krauss). “I’m very proud of that record — getting to work with so many great artists and all of them putting their trust in me to do things right.” “Mark Twain: Words & Music” (featuring Jimmy Buffett as Huck Finn, Clint Eastwood as Twain and singers Brad Paisley, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Joe Diffie and more) and “Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” rank up there, too.
Songwriting was not a career goal for Jackson but a success nonetheless — another one of
those blessings, he says. His song “A Far Cry from Over,” cut by Mel Tillis and Nancy Sinatra, was an early inkling. When Campbell recorded Jackson’s song “Letter to Home” in 1984, it became Jackson’s first Top 10 country record as a songwriter. “There he was, again, opening another door for me.
“It was a whole different ball game then.” Jackson’s “No Future in the Past” by Vince Gill was likely his biggest single record, he says. He’s also had hits by Wild Rose and Pam Tillis and many cuts by others, including Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Steve Wariner, Diamond Rio and more. His song “Little Mountain Church House” was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 1990 song of the year.
Jackson’s Grammy Award count? “Depends on how you look at it,” he says. “I’ve got two hood ornaments.” With one for best country album and one for best bluegrass album (“Spring Training,” 1991), “Maybe I can go for a best rock album at some point,” he kids, and his wife, Robin, joins him in laughter. In the past year, Jackson created and produced a digital duet of Campbell with Elvis Presley singing the gospel song “We Call on Him.” “That was a thrill,” he says. “I hope it makes the Grammys.”
Jackson’s horizon may hold more personal projects. “I need to do an album on myself,” he says, noting the big bank of songs he’s collected. He’d also like to do another banjo album, just to show folks he still plays, he says with a grin.
As far as that household name status, “I never gave things like that a lot of thought. It just
seemed like so much stuff just fell into place.” He shrugs. “It didn’t really matter to me. Dolly knew who I was. Emmylou knew who I was. And, Linda knows who I am.”
Now with a documentary on top of his Mississippi Country Music Trail marker, Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame membership and numerous honors, word about Jackson’s key country music role continues to spread.