Jackson Dean is a thoughtful country star in search of ‘a good, big time’

Jackson Dean is a thoughtful country star in search of 'a good, big time'

“He’s like if … Chris Stapleton had a son or something.”

It’s roughly 20 minutes into Big Machine Records-signed Jackson Dean’s sold-out headlining set at Nashville’s Basement East on a Thursday evening. A female 20-something fan has turned to her similarly aged boyfriend and, with transfixed, starry-eyed joy, is having a hyperbolic musical reckoning.

Onstage with a band of musicians that he’s primarily known since before he was old enough to dream of drinking or voting, the 22-year-old Dean is ripping his way through material from “Greenbroke,” his nearly year-old debut studio album.

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Dean’s age and status as a mainstream country music chart-topper (his crunching, heavy- and outlaw-rock-styled country track “Don’t Come Lookin'” topped Billboard’s Country Airplay charts before the close of 2022) would imply that at some point during the show, he would stop, turn around, and take a reel, selfie or TikTok video with his crowd to frame the moment for perpetuity.

That’s likely never going to happen while he’s onstage.

“I’m up there playing a live show with a four-piece band,” Dean says. “I’m not there to make you laugh and be a comedian. I’m there to sing my ass off, play my guitar, headbang and give you something raw [emerging] from my hands.”

© Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean
Jackson Dean was raised near the banks of Eastern Maryland’s Severn River. “Fifty yards off my back porch dropped into a bunch of nothing,” he jokes.

Dean was raised near the shore of Eastern Maryland’s Severn River between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He is used to living a life where the joys of urban extravagance exist on the fringes of the fishing holes, hiking trails and wild animal refuges along stretches of Maryland’s Robert Crain Highway.

Dean’s five-year journey wasn’t from a Southeastern Conference football town to somewhere off Gallatin Pike in East Nashville. Instead, he’s evolved from being a teenage handyman able to splinter flint into stone knives, craft leather into bags and wallets and living in a tiny cinderblock house on his family’s property to being a Music Row-signed artist.

“Fifty yards off my back porch dropped into a bunch of nothing,” jokes Dean to The Tennessean when describing the property where he grew up with his family of bricklayers, attempting to engage with civilization peaceably.

© Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean
Jackson Dean practices with his band during a sound check at the Basement East in Nashville on Jan. 19.

“You have to walk through life lawlessly and never lose your wild,” he says. “The society we share is full of laws, though.”

Dean’s sound is inspired by days of highway drives with his father on the way to pouring slabs at commercial work sites, listening to modern country and oldies radio, and nights spent with his dad hearing bluesy dive bar bands.

Ask Dean to boil that down a bit deeper, and the root of the noise that left Nashville in stunned silence for large parts of Thursday evening gets mentioned:

Hearing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Shuffle Your Feet” and “Ain’t No Easy Way” from San Francisco-based rock act’s 2005 album “Howl.” The album was released when he was 5 years old.

Dean’s been getting deep and heavy for quite some time.

© Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean
“I write songs that try to define intangible, intense things I’ve seen, done and felt,” Jackson Dean says.

The blend of Americana, country, gospel and rock on that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club record was deemed by Pitchfork as “T-Bone Burnett-inspired, south-thieving, gothic country goo.”

Fascinatingly, 2023’s mainstream country music scene is so slickly-polished that finding something that sticks has fallen back into favor.

“I need to make music that makes the crowd at my shows say ‘holy s—.’ I might not always get it right, but we all should be striving for that.”

As of late, with follow-up songs “Fearless” and “Wings,” he’s achieving his goals.

The words, and how they’re phrased, that are being laid upon Dean’s well-defined sonic bed are where the magic currently best lies in his work.

Dean’s only a year past legally being able to understand what the combination of sex and drugs can best achieve when combined with rock ‘n’ roll. That’s not to say he hasn’t spent the better part of a decade wrestling with understanding how they all interweave.

“I write songs that try to define intangible, intense things I’ve seen, done and felt,” he says.

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Dean is currently working with music publisher Arturo Buenahora Jr. at Little Louder Music and Luke Dick — a veteran Nashville singer-songwriter whose work includes Miranda Lambert’s “Bluebird” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Velvet Elvis” — on how to phrase his songs to better flow into cinematic visions that resonate as live performance and radio winners.

To make a long story short, it’s working.

Like his heroes Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, his songs being sync licensed to television and commercials has keyed his renown of late. Alongside being covered by Kelly Clarkson, his songs have appeared on Netflix’s “The Ice Road.” Plus, like fellow rock-tinged country favorites like Lainey Wilson, he’s also achieved visibility via Paramount’s hit series “Yellowstone.”

© Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com
Carly Pearce performs with Jackson Dean at the Ryman Auditorium in October.

“I was sitting back in a hotel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico, having a drink and living my dreams,” he says. “It’s dope as hell, man. Kevin Costner? Lieutenant Dunbar from ‘Dancing With Wolves’ is being soundtracked by ‘Don’t Come Lookin’?’ That’s easily one of the coolest things to happen in my life.”

Regarding overall hopes for his sound and style moving forward, Dean offers a well-rounded thought.

“I’m trying to exist and produce at the center of the creation of two things people can’t completely explain: beauty and music,” he says. “When I achieve that, it’ll be the most intoxicating feeling in the world and I’m here for that. I’m a country redneck looking to have a good, big time.”

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Jackson Dean is a thoughtful country star in search of ‘a good, big time’