He’s served our country as a Marine and enjoyed a successful career in the banking industry, but with one listen to Tony Jackson’s new album, I’ve Got Songs to Sing, it is obvious country music is his true calling. With a distinctive voice that embodies country’s best traditions yet teems with an infectious energy that propels the genre into the future, Jackson is an old country soul in the body of a rising superstar.
Never has that been more apparent than in the 11 tracks on I’ve Got Songs to Sing. Jackson is joined by his hero Randy Travis on the album’s closing song “Do You Remember Country Music” and bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent duets with Jackson for “Leave the Light On,” a rollicking piano-laced musical adventure. The warmth and confident timbre of his voice is on full display with his impressive cover of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” while the upbeat “I’m All In” also showcases Jackson’s skill as a songwriter.
He also turned to some of Nashville’s top songwriters to contribute material for the album with Erin Enderlin and Jamey Johnson penning the title tune. “It’s like a soundtrack of my life for the past 10 years or so, making the transition from working that 9 to 5 to pursuing music,” Jackson says of “I’ve Got Songs to Sing.” “It comes with some risks, but every career has its challenges. That song speaks to the things that we all go through. We all have something we are passionate about and working towards. Being able to perform it and mean it and have it mean something to someone else, there’s nothing better for me.”
Born in Portsmouth, VA, Jackson is a regular performer on the famed Grand Ole Opry and has become a social media darling with over 100 million video views to date. During his childhood, Jackson’s father was in the Navy and military life influenced his development as an artist. “Growing up listening to Armed Forces radio,” he recalls, “the deejay played whatever people asked for so there was no such thing as the radio dial where you picked a specific genre.”
As a result, Jackson grew up absorbing a variety of music, but as he matured it was country that attracted him most because of the storytelling. While stationed abroad, he saw first-hand the way country music could be an anchor in a nomadic existence. “The themes that occur in country music are what people are more connected to while away from home,” he says. “Country music has always been the type of music that speaks to me the most.”
It was while his family was living in Spain, 10-year-old Tony had an encounter that would greatly shape his life. There was a big concert coming to the base and he and his friends caught a ride on a military bus to the airplane hangar to see what the fuss was all about. “They were setting up all the stuff and that’s when this guy came out and talked to us,” Jackson recalls. “We didn’t know that he was the guy that they were making the big fuss about, but he was curious about what our lives were like living overseas. Most people think you’re just in an alien land and away from everything familiar, but we were having a ball and we were all too happy to tell him about it. We didn’t find out until later that that was the guy that everyone was buzzing about all week. It was Randy Travis.”
After that chance meeting and seeing Randy’s concert, Jackson was always looking to cut grass or wash cars, anything he could do to earn money and buy the next Randy Travis tape—back in the day when cassettes were all the rage. Having Randy join him on “Do You Remember Country Music” was a dream come true for Jackson. “It means the world. It’s like a full circle moment,” he says. “We also shot a video with Randy. It felt like I was watching it happen to someone else. I felt like a spectator. It’s been just wonderful.”
Jackson also admits it felt like validation after some time spent second-guessing his life choices. His path definitely led him to the right place, but he has taken a circuitous route. Though his dad was a Navy man, Jackson admits to being swayed by recruiters who visited his high school and influenced his decision to join the Marines. When he got out of the military he got an IT job with Bank of America, a company that held his job and supplemented his base sergeants pay when the Marines called him back into service after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“When I’d left the bank, I’d had some apprehension about it because I thought if I don’t make it in music, I’ll be the world’s biggest idiot because I have this wonderful secure job with this wonderful company and all these benefits,” he shares, “but music is what I love to do so when I left, it felt like a big risk and then when Covid came and shut everything down, it was tough but I wasn’t looking back. So everything that has happened in recording this album is an affirmation for me that if you stick with your dreams and give it all you got and things will happen.”
Indeed, many good things have happened for Jackson as he’s navigated his career to this point. He first garnered attention when recorded a cover of the George Jones classic “The Grand Tour,” which became a viral hit. He was brought to Nashville by Donna Dean Stevens, widow of the late Jimmy Dean, and veteran manager Jim Della Croce, who produced his highly acclaimed 2017 self-titled debut album. Jackson’s talent and reputation won the respect of Nashville’s top musicians and such notables as Little Feat’s Bill Payne, George Marinelli, Steve Cropper, Vince Gill, John Sebastian, Paul Franklin, Mickey Raphael, Joe Spivey and Billy Thomas were among the cadre of A-listers who played on his first album.
Though the project yielded five singles and earned over 80 million views and 1.2 million shares of his videos, the pandemic struck and scuttled plans for his sophomore album. Like most of the country, Jackson took some time to regroup and get back on track. He did just that and began work on I’ve Got Songs to Sing. Thematically the album covers a lot of territory. “Dyann” is a tender love song about a man who hopes a burgeoning relationship continues. “Five Dollar Bible” is a poignant treatise on faith and the things in life that truly matter. “Chuck Rhodes sent that to me,” he says of the label chief and album’s co-producer. “He’d had it for a while and just had it in his pocket waiting for the right person to come along for that message. When I heard it, I said, ‘Yup, that’s mine.’”
Jackson also enjoyed working with Vincent on “Leave the Light On.” “We did a Larry’s Country Diner cruise several years ago, so I was on the boat with her for a week,” he recalls. “She just has that phenomenal voice and just the ability to draw a listener in. When Chuck and I talked about doing a duet for the album I hoped we could get Rhonda to do it. They reached out and asked and she agreed. It came out great. She has such a high level of energy and great work ethic. I really admire her.”
Like his previous album, I’ve Got Songs to Sing also attracted some of the top session musicians in the business. Produced by Rhodes and Buddy Hyatt in Nashville, and John Sebastian and Della Croce in Woodstock, the album features such talented musicians as Spivey, Thomas (who both contributed to Jackson’s last album) Kenny Vaughn, Brent Mason, Lonnie Wilson, Waddy Watchel, Cindy Cashdollar, Clifford Carter, Joel Key and CMA’s reigning Musician of the Year Jenee Fleenor as well as acclaimed indie artist Sean Della Croce on background vocals. A Who’s Who of Nashville songwriters also have credits on the album, including Vince Melamed, Mo Pitney, Karen Staley and Bobby Tomberlin.
It all adds up to a stellar album filled with well-crafted country songs, played by legendary musicians and it’s all anchored by Jackson’s resonant, country to the core voice. And on this record, Jackson feels he’s finally confident in his instrument and he’s learned to trust his instincts. “On my first record, I relied more on the producers asking, ‘How do you want this note sang? How do you want this phrasing to go?’ I relied on them as the experts,” he says. “On the new album, I felt more like this is art and I’m the artist. There isn’t necessarily a right way. You can take input and feedback and suggestions from those experts, which I do, but I felt more comfortable just delivering it how I felt it and just letting it be the way it is. That’s been my personal evolution.”
Though he’s only recently felt more confident in the studio, Jackson has always felt at home on the stage. “With my background and moving around, I was always the new guy. I learned from an early age there are no strangers anywhere. We are all the same,” he says with a smile. “So, any community I’m in, I feel comfortable. I feel a connection to the audience. I truly love it. Music comes easy to me and connecting with folks has always come easy and that translates to a good performance. I hope the messages that come from this album are things that people can identify with and that they enjoy it. And of course, I hope that it brings them out to see us live. I just enjoy that communal experience, especially coming out of Covid when we all got to sit in timeout for two years. It makes it even more meaningful to me and I think it does to others too. So I hope this new record is something we can rally around and get back into some togetherness going forward. I feel good about the future.”