Last fall, when A Star Is Born premiered on thousands of screens and was toasted by hundreds of film critics, a mini-backlash brewed. For some pundits, the film’s pop politics were a little off — the grizzled, past-his-prime troubadour Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seemingly was upheld as a paragon of authenticity and artistic virtue at the expense of his lover and protegé, Ally Campana (Lady Gaga), who is guided by mercenary forces into the wilds of disreputable booty jams. That is, if you chose to interpret the film as an endorsement of Jackson’s worldview, a dubious proposition given what ultimately happens to him. (No spoilers, though given that A Star Is Born has been remade four times now, the uninitiated might just want to go ahead and see it already.)
“A Star Is Born has a touch of the fairy tale to it, but it’s Jackson Maine who is actually its most fanciful figure, at least in the intensely fragmented, pop and hip-hop–dominated reality of today’s music industry,” Buzzfeed observed, picking up on a common complaint about the verisimilitude of “a rootsy, still youngish rocker so famous that he plays arenas.” For all of the well-publicized care that Cooper took as a director and co-writer to ground A Star Is Born in current music-industry reality, his own character seemed like an anachronism to many viewers. “There’s really no present-day equivalent for Jackson,” Buzzfeed concluded.
I beg to differ. I just saw the real-life Jackson Maine — a 41-year-old dude with a three o’clock shadow and an acoustic guitar strapped to his chest. A “rootsy, still youngish” singer-songwriter who has railed against lip-syncing in the pages of Rolling Stone and praised Bruce Springsteen as a symbol of promise and vitality in his most famous song. A rocker famous enough to play two consecutive arena shows in my town, Minneapolis, this past weekend.
While Cooper has mentioned Eddie Vedder and Jack White has inspirations for the character, I’m convinced that the real-life Jackson Maine is actually Eric Church. It’s not a perfect comparison — as far as I know, Church does not have a debilitating substance abuse problem, and he doesn’t appear to be suicidal. You could argue that his hit “Drink In My Hand” is a secretly dark anthem about working class people drinking away the pain of low-income work. But for the most part, the worst booze-related mishaps in his songs generally involve terrible hangovers — like in “Jack Daniels,” where the popular brand of whiskey “kicked my ass again last night.”
Church is referred to as an “outlaw” country star, though a cursory listen to his last four albums clearly shows that he pivoted decisively toward rock starting with 2011’s multi-platinum Chief. Church himself has stated this over and over in interviews and even his songs — he has a track that’s literally called “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” — as have crucial collaborators like his long-time producer Jay Joyce. “The first couple of records we had some steel guitar,” Joyce told Rolling Stone last year. “And then we looked at each other like, ‘We f*ckin’ hate steel guitar!’”
The most accurate term for Church’s music is heartland rock, which was applied in the 1980s to artists like Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty, all of whom sold millions of albums and had hits on the pop charts. But once “heartland rock” fell out of favor with music critics as a relevant classification, artists who mine the middle ground between rock, folk, blues, and R&B were shuffled off to country or Americana music. Today, Church is part of a group that includes Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, and A Star Is Born soundtrack contributor Jason Isbell. Jackson Maine would also be in this group… if, you know, he were a real person.