Country artist Tony Jackson didn’t grow up a country music fan, but his stint in the Marines offered a natural entry into the genre.
In fact, he’s now a regular at the recently revived Old Dominion Barn Dance country show in Richmond, Va., though he was in New York yesterday promoting his debut single “Drink by Drink,” which he co-wrote, and its CD single companion cover of the George Jones classic “The Grand Tour.”
“I was a military brat who went to four high schools in four years,” said Jackson, whose father served in the Navy during Desert Storm. Growing up mainly in Atlanta, Virginia and Rota, Spain, he was heavily exposed to gospel music, via his mother, and his father’s record collection of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and new jack swing.
“During the Atlanta Child Murders [1979-1981] I wasn’t allowed to go outside,” said Jackson, who is now 39. “I listened to Ashford & Simpson,” he noted, calling up the cover of the duo’s classic Send It album on his smartphone, “Kool and the Gang, Con Funk Shun, and Armed Forces Radio—so I experienced all kinds of music. But country music wasn’t on my radar.”
In Spain, Jackson had “the run of the base,” he recalled, and attended USO shows brought over by Bob Hope. He remembers throwing the football around with an inquisitive young man prior to a show.
“He was asking us questions, and I didn’t know who he was–and then I saw him on stage, and it was Randy Travis!” said Jackson, who joined the Marines two weeks after graduating high school. One of his buddies in the barracks was a country music fan, and it rubbed off.
“There’s the proverbial Marine ‘Jody’—the guy who stays home and gets your girl while you’re away,” he explained. “There are stories and even cadences about him, and it resonates with country music in that a lot of the songs are about home and family and heartbreak, and longing for things lost.”
Jackson had sung, at his mother’s insistence, in church choir. A computer and electronics geek as a teenager, he studied computer science in the Marine Corps, then worked in information technology after, first in Japan and then in Richmond, where he now manages the network operations center for the Bank of America. Eight or nine years ago he joined a rock band after a friend whose band had lost its lead singer asked him to try out for the spot.
But Jackson’s exposure to country music manifested itself when George Jones died in 2013. Jones’ 1974 chart-topper “The Grand Tour” had particularly appealed to him, and he and some friends recorded it as a tribute—also making a performance video that ended up on YouTube. Donna Dean Stevens, the widow of country legend Jimmy Dean and a former country recording artist in her own right as Donna Meade, saw it and invited Jackson to sing it on the Old Dominion Barn Dance—which she had resurrected in February, 2015. Witnessing the standing ovation his performance earned, she offered to co-manage and co-produce him with veteran talent manager Jim Della Croce.
“She’s been a mentor,” said Jackson, who now considers himself a country artist through and through.
“When I was in a rock band, it was ‘I’m angry and everybody sucks’—the Marine Corps attitude!” he said. “But my mentality changed. I can be me in country music, and it’s for everybody: Go to MerleFest and there are strollers and Hoverounds. I didn’t grow up on a back road or spend time on a tailgate, but I can identify.”
As for fitting in with contemporary country music, Jackson feels that “bro-country is not that much different from the offshoot of R&B that became hip-hop.”
“I’m not trying to fit in or compete with anyone, but there’s a huge audience for what I do,” he said. “I got 20,000 comments on Facebook saying, ‘This is what I want to hear.’”