For John Jackson, the matter of choosing his life’s vocation was settled pretty early. “I was lucky,” he says. “In third grade I knew I was either going to play guitar or basketball. I loved those two things and from then on that’s all I wanted to do. In high school I stuck with the guitar and ditched basketball.”
A quick glance at Jackson’s resume confirms that he made the right choice. He’s been making a living playing guitar for over three decades, and accumulated an impressive list of employers: Kathy Mattea, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Jones and many others. But the true secret of Jackson’s success goes beyond the steady paycheck or the notable job references. He’s been having fun the whole time.
A native of Nashville, John Jackson picked up his first guitar at the age of 8. While neither of his parents worked in the music business, the rich Southern culture of music seemed to seep its way into his playing. “I’ve always been drawn to what they call Americana now – that ‘roots’ style of playing,” Jackson says.
Coming of age in the late 1970s meant that Jackson was in the right spot and time when the local Nashville rock scene exploded. “All through the late ’70s and into the early ’80s I had my own band, John Jackson & the Rhythm Rockers,” Jackson says. “We played Bogie’s, Phrank ’N’ Stein’s, Cantrell’s, Exit/In, 12th & Porter — we were at one of those probably three times a month.”
Other than a short stint with the power-pop combo Practical Stylists, Jackson primarily focused on the Rhythm Rockers and their rocking live sets. “We were a party band,” Jackson says, “and everyone just had a great time. I love to play music that I like and that worked for me. Even today people will recognize me and come up to me and say, ‘That was the best time of my life, just coming to see you play.’ That makes me feel great. There were a lot of fun bands, and it was a good time for Nashville.”
Jackson’s reputation as a live guitarist soon brought him to the attention of Music Row. “I toured with Kathy Mattea, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Terri Gibbs and Jo-El Sonnier,” Jackson says. “Somebody would come out to a show and see me play, and I started getting offers.”
Jackson also received calls for session work, but it didn’t take long for him to figure out where his main passion was. “I don’t pick stuff up really fast, and I hate going into a session and having to come up with something quick. I can do it, but it’s not enjoyable for me. I have tons of friends that do a lot of session work. I admire what they can do, but you’re not getting the immediate satisfaction of a reaction from an audience, and that’s something I think I need.”
Jackson’s prowess with the guitar soon drew attention from beyond Nashville. “I was on tour with Jo-El Sonnier and Bob Dylan happened to be at a show in New York at the Lone Star. Tony, his bass player, who I had met before, came on the bus and said that Bob liked my playing and could he get my number. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, tell him to call me if he needs a guitar player’ — kind of joking. Two years later I get a call from out of the blue from Bob’s office. I didn’t know how long it was going to last, if he would like me or if I would like him. I went to New York, did three rehearsals, and we were on tour in Europe.”
Jackson toured with Dylan from 1992 to 1997, playing on the MTV Unplugged album and also backing Dylan on studio tracks for several tribute albums. It’s a period of Dylan’s career that is beloved by many fans for exciting and varied live sets.
“It was a fun band,” Jackson says, “and it wasn’t real structured. I learned an incredible amount of music while I was with him. I think we may have played over 700 different songs. People weren’t getting the exact same set list every night. I think the fans got something exciting out of it, and Bob got a new appreciation for playing and writing. Eventually it just ran its course and it was time to go.”
Returning to Nashville, Jackson had little time to rest before he joined Lucinda Williams’ road band in support of her breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The M.O. of providing the live support for a critically acclaimed album repeated itself when he joined Shelby Lynne’s band immediately after the release of her 1999 album, I Am Shelby Lynne. “I love it,” Jackson says. “I get to play great parts, but I had the freedom to add to what’s on the records.”
Jackson’s traveling days came to a temporary halt in 2002 with the birth of his son. “I took off 2002 to 2005 to care for my son,” Jackson says. “My wife had a great job, so she would work and we’d go to the park or the zoo every day. It was great to be with him.”
Unable to leave the guitar behind completely, Jackson soon found a new calling. “When our son started classes at the Montessori Centre I asked if they had a music program. They didn’t have anybody, so I offered to come in and do something for them.” Jackson has continued to teach the guitar classes, fitting them in around his other work. “I do a music class and guitar lessons for 4- and 5-year-olds,” he says. “It’s amazing. I love being with kids, and I get to show them that music is fun. It’s just basic techniques of strumming and having fun singing the songs they like. You can tell they’re so happy to be there. They want to learn and have fun.”
Jackson also frequently backs poet, novelist, and essayist Minton Sparks, composing and playing the soundtracks for her spoken-word performances. Recently, he’s been playing occasional sessions for his many friends and hitting the road, albeit for shorter stints, like a recent tour with one of the great good-time party singers, Tom Jones. In addition to his family, he’s found another reason to stay close to home.
“When we started looking for a house, my realtor said, ‘If you could live in any style house what would it be?’ I used to walk my dogs in Sylvan Park and there was a little hacienda, Mexican/California-style house. I sent him a picture of it, and said if you can find one like this I’ll be interested. A week later he sent me a picture of a house in Little Hollywood.” The unique East Nashville neighborhood of Spanish-revival houses near Shelby Park immediately captured Jackson’s heart. “I had lived here my whole life and never known about it. I drove over here and I loved it, and that’s where I am now. Don’t tell anyone about it,” Jackson adds, with a laugh.
Asked about his philosophy of music, Jackson doesn’t hesitate, delivering his answer with the same certainty of purpose that he discovered as a child with his first guitar. “Do what you love, make sure it’s real, and enjoy it. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve gotten to play with amazing people, but sometimes just sitting around with a bunch of friends, playing and singing at a party, you realize that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I started playing guitar and why I still play guitar.”