Lucky Dreamer Man
on “Trailerpark” Jackson (he actually lives in a trailer) sits in his booth at the Waffle House on Stewarts Ferry Pike—he likes to think of it as his de facto office—and drinks black coffee. He’s not tall, pushing just five-foot-eight, but, like a lot of natural born leaders, he’s blessed with that combination of charisma and inner quiet that confers an ineffable quality known as gravitas. He’s got brown hair and big blue eyes. They go with his baseball hat. He claims he didn’t mean to wear this color combo, but with his red Adidas sweatshirt and white tee, the outfit is all-American (and if he did mean to dress so patriotically, he’s managed to make it cool). Jackson is reflective by nature, but if he’s quieter than usual, it’s because I’ve just asked him to supply three words to describe himself. “I have the last two words…I just don’t have the first one,” he says. After a minute or so of looking off into the distance, his smile broadens. “Alright. This is it: Lucky Dreamer Man.” He laughs. It’s not the catchiest three-word phrase, it doesn’t roll off the tongue—okay, it sounds like a knock-off Dylan song—but it’s apt. Get to know Jackson and one thing is certain: a person would not only have to dream big but also have a lot of luck to live the life of Jon Jackson. He’s singer-songwriter by day, Vanderbilt nurse by night. Now he’s added the title of congressional hopeful to his résumé. But let’s start with his first job.
Jackson’s musical career arc resembles many wanna-be rockstars. He started at the age of six, performing “Tutti Frutti” on his aunt’s couch; he took up guitar in high school, eventually progressing to Beatles tunes, and writing songs in earnest. “Heartbreak was the seminal spark,” he says of his writing career. Plenty of lovelorn kids write songs and play an instrument, but few end up with a record deal. Jon’s first album Green Apples was released earlier this year by Serenity Hill Records.
Jackson’s musical tastes are eclectic. When asked which five artists he would take with him to a desert island, he includes the Beatles, Death Cab for Cutie, Magnetic Fields, John Prine, and the Beastie Boys, but he likes Americana for his own musical stylings, having graduated from what he calls “the Johnny Cash school of music”: his style is what it is because he can’t do anything else. His folksy Americana approach to music focuses more on the lyrics. “That genre of lyrical storytelling,” Jackson says. “In my experience, that’s just what works best for me. Plus I can’t work a synthesizer to save my life.”
When Jackson’s not in his trailer writing and playing, he spends a fair amount of time in the pediatric trauma unit at Vanderbilt hospital. For an artist, the choice of career was practical. “I thought, ‘Once I get out of school, I know I’ll have a job,” and what a nice job it is. The flexible hours let him play out whenever he needs to, and the job security puts waffles on his plate. But these were not the only things that drew him to the medical field. “I like having a job where what I do matters.”
Perhaps, then, it is this same desire to make a difference that inspired him to run for Tennessee’s District 5 congressional seat in February 2008. True, Jon is not what your average voter might consider a typical candidate. Along with the New Holland baseball cap and Adidas jacket, he’s wearing a two-days’ beard. His sleepy manner, accompanied by the way he stops and thinks about exactly what he wants to say before he says it in his drawling, Southern accent, does not necessarily convey the confidence and stick-to-itiveness that the common man looks for in an elected official. But hasn’t everyone been told not to judge an album by its jacket?
That raises another question. Why would a person who obviously has enough on his plate as an up-and-coming musical talent and health-care professional want to take on the responsibility of governing other people in the first place? “Because our government is a farce!” Jackson says. “It’s a dishonest joke.” If, in fact, the government is a farce, how would a non-politician go about implementing the changes he or she would like to see in government? For Jon, the plan of action was as follows: post a video on MySpace, announce your decision to run for Congress, and join the ranks of those who have believed that the only way they can bring change to Washington is to go there themselves. “I want to be a model of the government I would like to see, which is totally different.”
The government Jon wants to see is one that is based around a congress of volunteers; in his view, people should want to be involved in their government while keeping their other jobs: governing shouldn’t be the only job itself. In a perfect world, Jackson’s Congress would meet “perhaps only quarterly” and in emergency situations, “preferably in a Waffle House.” He says that this would allow Tennesseans to be governed by other normal, everyday Americans. After all, Jackson observes, how on earth can an elected official be expected to rule in the best interests of their respective areas if they are so drastically separated from the people they seek to represent? In the time of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote about the tyrannies of monarchy, pointing out that “[monarchy] first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the World, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.” The same could be said of the steep financial requirements just to make a congressional run. Frightening to think how far this country has come since then, no? Perhaps with “Trailerpark” Jackson voters are finally being presented with the candidate Thomas Paine dreamt of all those years ago.
Jackson deviated from the path of a typical candidate not only in the platform on which he choose to run, but also in the way he ran his campaign. Millions of dollars are spent on campaigns for every kind of election, but, lacking both personal wealth and fundraising resources, Jon was forced to run a significantly thriftier campaign. “I probably spent about $60 or $70 on the campaign. It was all for stickers,” he admits—stickers that he himself made at Fed-Ex Kinko’s and cut out by hand. Jon says of his campaign, “Me, personally, I haven’t done anything other than post a few videos on MySpace. It’s been painless and I haven’t put much effort at all in to it, but the doors that have opened for me have been astounding, man.”
Jackson’s most significant campaign activity transpired on a Saturday afternoon in Centennial Park. “I knew an arts and crafts festival was coming to Centennial in Nashville, and I had kind of kicked around or joked about the idea of doing something with it, going down there and campaigning. And I just started talking to my buddies, my landlord in particular, and before you knew it the thing had snowballed into this idea with a platform and the PA system.”
This “idea with a platform and the PA system” ended up consisting of driving around a loop that ran along West End and 21st Avenue, neatly circumscribing the Vanderbilt area for several hours (he was immediately turned away by police from Centennial) in an old truck decorated with hand-painted signs reading “Trailerpark 4 Congress” on either side, a life-sized cardboard cut-out of John Wayne standing in the bed of his own truck, and two American flags flying triumphantly from the back. “This all happened in a matter of hours with no planning whatsoever and some serious fears that I was going to get arrested.”
This illegal float was outfitted with hay bales and a PA system blasting “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen and shouting encouragement to “Vote Trailerpark for Congress!” These antics were all caught on tape and incorporated into his official campaign video. They can be found on the Channel 2 News Web site as well as his own.
Now, Jackson’s campaigning season is winding down. In the remaining days before the election, voters are making their decisions; ads are being run on TV; signs are going up in yards; friends and neighbors are discussing their preferred candidates. But are people talking about the real maverick in this election? The one who is not on the national ballot, but on the one for Tennessee’s District 5, including Davidson county and half of Cheatham and Wilson counties? Jackson laughs. “No, no. People are not talking.”
So the case may be, but that doesn’t keep him from spending his down time during his graveyard shifts at Vandy catching up on politics and current events. “I’m getting sucked in, y’know? It’s the season…It’s because I have 12 hours at nights to kill.” Always one to seek out the silver lining, Jackson appreciates the fact he’s been spared the negative press and ill will other aspiring politicians suffer. “Jim Cooper hasn’t run one sleaze ad against me,” he says. “I’m shocked.”
So back to the earlier question: Why does Jackson do it? He’s certainly busy enough; he’s not seeking glory, God, or gold. Plenty of other Americans who are far less politically involved and definitely not as busy sit and think cynical thoughts about the nation’s politicians. What is it that keeps them on the couch and yet makes “Trailerpark” Jackson wake up one morning and decide to start campaigning? “Just sort of…I never…never really wanted to sit on the sidelines ever in my life. There’s something really attractive about the American line, ‘You—one person in this huge country, this huge world—you can change it.’ The constitution tells us we’re supposed to change it when things are wrong. You don’t have to be a hero to do heroic things… I’m just trying to live my dream, not to be afraid.” God bless America.
Even if Jon is to lose this election, he’s not the type to be disheartened. Chances are he’ll still be frequenting his local Waffle House observing the “dirty American grit” he sees there and the “picture of dysfunctional America” he has come to know and love. And chances are he will still be citing the lyrics of a Todd Snider song, “The Devil’s Backbone Tavern,” that represent the one thing he would want people to know: “Life’s too short to worry. Life’s too long to wait. Life’s too short not to love everybody. Life’s too long to hate.”
Jon managed to scrounge up a whopping 2% of the vote (5,433 votes), beating the other independent candidate by a little over 2,000 votes. Jackson says he’s thrilled.