Not Afraid of Much

“Fearless” singer Jackson Dean on seeing ghosts, recording at the Ryman & what really gives him heebie jeebies

Jackson Dean’s new single is kinda scary. It details things that frighten a lot of people, and one thing that should scare everybody.

“Fearless (the Echo),” originally a track on his 2022 debut album, Greenbroke, gets a new kick of renewed energy this week on March 17 as the first release from Dean’s forthcoming full live album, recorded at the Ryman.

And recording at country music’s Mother Church was a dream come true, says the Maryland native now living in east Nashville. Dean, 22, vividly remembers visiting the Ryman for the first time as a teenager.

“I had just turned 15,” he tells me from his East Nashville home. “I had already [recorded] a little acoustic record, and my dad said, ‘Hey, you want to go [to Nashville] and check it out?’”

Dean sat with his mom and dad in the nosebleed balcony of country music’s venerated music hall, watching Jamey Johnson perform on the stage below, joined by his special guest, 27-time Grammy-winner Alison Krauss.

“They were singing ‘Dreaming My Dreams with You,’” a 1970s classic recorded by Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Marianne Faithful and Jewel, among others. “And I fell in love with the place, with the Ryman,” Dean says. That’s why it was such a thrill for him to come back, seven years later, to record his songs in front a Ryman audience—one that had come to see him.

“I had [‘Dreaming My Dreams with You’] on my mind during the soundcheck,” he says. “It was a big bucket-list moment, a helluva mile marker for where I am now and where we’re headed.”

If you’ve heard the big ballad “Fearless,” get ready for a slightly different live version of it and other songs from Dean’s debut album, Greenbroke, released a year ago. The Ryman album has new players (including Dean’s road band), some supplemental instrumentation (lap steel and dobro) and an unbridled onstage live-show energy that he says “you can’t recreate” in the studio.

“ ‘Fearless’ is a bit fast,” he says. “That’s what happens when your adrenaline starts going faster than you can keep it down. All the [live] songs are a bit more aggressive, for sure.”

It’s understandable that Dean might be surging with super-charged adrenaline. He’s been hitting it hard on the road, opening shows for Blake Sheldon and Carly Pierce, and he’ll be on the bill at several major state fairs and festivals this summer, including Stagecoach, Country Thunder and the Iowa State Fair. Fans as well as critics have been wowed by his earthy, masculine baritone, which has drawn impressively lofty comparisons to Chris Stapleton, Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt.  

And everyone wonders, where does a 20-something get a voice like that, one that sounds like it’s already lived a life beyond its years?

“I can tell you where that came from,” he says. “From my daddy. He was a stonemason for hire; still is. I’ve been working for my old man since I was about 10, and being on job sites, being expected to carry yourself like a man, it shapes you. You learn to walk and talk.”

You also learn, he says, to be fearless, like in his song—except when it comes to someone you love. “Dudes are dudes, and we ain’t scared of shit,” he says. “But the song is about being fearful of something happening to someone; loving them so much, you’re scared of losing them, or fucking things up. My dad told me and my brothers and sisters once, ‘I’ve been scared to death since the day you all started popping out of your mom.’ I can’t really imagine anything more powerful than the love of a dad for his kids.”

In “Fearless (the Echo),” cowritten by Dean with Jonathan Sherwood and Luke Dick, he starts the song by noting that he’s unafraid of risky behaviors like jumping off bridges, risking a fall from a narrow ledge, or even encountering ghosts. Maybe it’s because he’s done all those things.

He claims to have seen a ghost near his childhood home in Maryland, where years before, the bodies of several murdered missing girls had been found in the deep woods. “I swear to God,” he says. “My mom had gone to school with one of the girls, and she showed me her picture.” And that day, alone in the woods, “I saw her, that girl in the picture, walking through groups of trees. She passed behind one, behind another, and then she was gone. It sent a shiver down my spine. I’ve believed in ghosts ever since then.”

As for jumping off bridges and leaping from ledges, he’s done that too, into streams and swimming holes of the Potomoc River, near his childhood home between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “There are some crazy cliffs on the Potomic, man,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so it was work, the woods and then music. Just like the song says, there’s not much that scares me.”

But there’s one thing that does make him somewhat slightly uncomfortable.

“I definitely don’t like spiders,” he says.

—By Neil Pond


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