Ten studio albums into his career, country boy Alan Jackson took a bit of a breather when he released his first-ever gospel album, Precious Memories, in 2006. Though it’s his quietest record to date, as solemn and hushed as a Sunday service, the album sold more than one million copies. It also reached the top position on Billboard’s charts for Top Christian Albums and Top Country Albums, as well as No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
But one track that stands out the most in this album is his rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s actually his boot tappin’ performance for this song that sends his audience soaring with faith and joy. When he performed the tune in one of his Grand Ole Opry appearances, the audience rose to their feet and clapped along as the country boy had the time of his life, belting the uplifting lyrics and channeling his faith for a passionate performance.
The moment Jackson gives extra emphasis on the word “God,” you’ll quickly get the sense that the country star is a very religious man. But this song is so much bigger. It goes beyond genres, both the musical kind and the spiritual kind.
“I’ll Fly Away” Being The Most Recorded Gospel Song
“I’ll Fly Away” is called the most recorded gospel song, with over 5,000 versions sung by artists all over the world, including Johnny Cash, Kanye West, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch. You will often hear this song in worship services by Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Baptists, the Churches of Christ, and several Methodists. It appeared in several hymnals where it is listed under the topics of heaven, eternal life, and acceptance. It is a standard song at bluegrass jam sessions and is frequently performed at funerals.
The song was written by Albert E. Brumley, who has been described as the “pre-eminent gospel songwriter” of the 20th century with more than 600 published songs. According to interviews, Brumley came up with the idea for “I’ll Fly Away” when he was picking cotton on his father’s farm in Rock Island, Oklahoma.
One working day, Brumley was “humming the old ballad that went like this: ‘If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly,’ and suddenly it dawned on me that I could use this plot for a gospel-type song.” The song Brumley described appeared to be “The Prisoner’s Song.”
It took three years later for Brumley to work out the rest of the song. He paraphrased one line from the temporal ballad to read, “Like a bird from prison bars has flown” using prison as an analogy for worldly life. Brumley had said, “When I wrote it, I had no idea that it would become so universally popular.”
There’s no denying that this is exactly the track Jackson wanted to make – one that is consistent in tone and precise in its vision. It may not make for everyday listening, even a tune that would be played every week, yet it would make a great soundtrack for a reflective, reverent Sunday afternoon.
Don’t miss Alan Jackson’s breathtaking performance of “I’ll Fly Away,” watch it below.