A Conversation With Country Icon Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson always loved old-school country music. Growing up in Newnan, Ga., he saw the pop/Eagles-inflected country spreading like kudzu all over the genre he loved. With Randy Travis’ new traditionalism plateauing and Keith Whitley succumbing to alcohol poisoning, it felt like real country might be done.

Determined, he and his wife moved to Nashville. She became a flight attendant; he delivered mail at TNN: The Nashville Network. When Denise had a chance encounter with Glen Campbell, pressing him to listen to her husband’s songs, she walked away with the superstar’s business card.

Campbell recognized the quality of Jackson’s writing. Tim DuBoisArista Nashville was working the edges with acts ranging from Exile to Western swingers Asleep at the Wheel, Pam Tillis and hard-working writers turned duo Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. It became the first label home for the lanky blond who embodied the same quiet strength as the good guys in the cowboy movies.

His second single, “Here in the Real World,” echoed those sentiments, as he lamented, “The boy don’t always get the girl/Here in the real world.” Like a flashfire, Alan Jackson was a superstar.

“Chasing That Neon Rainbow,” “Wanted,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Drive (for Daddy Gene),” reprises of Roger Miller’s “Tall, Tall Trees” and Charly McClain’s “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” and the Jimmy Buffett “5 O’Clock Somewhere” juggernaut that launched a billion happy hours made him a country institution.

DuBois tapped a superstar out of Minneapolis named Mike Dungan to help take Jackson’s music from superstar to icon status. More importantly, those early hits were a beacon to a young Cindy Mabe, enthralled by someone singing about her life in North Carolina. Unlike with pop, this was her world being depicted—and she came to Nashville empowered to believe there was a place in the music business for her. Ultimately, Jackson would follow the team to UMG Nashville, where he’s continued to make compelling music.

A few weeks after 9/11, Jackson stunned the 2001 CMA Awards into silence with “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” a ballad that spoke for America with the confession, “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran.” In four minutes, a song no one saw coming sorted our confusion, vulnerability and offered a truth to redeem us: “I remember this from when I was young/Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us/And the greatest is love.”

Where Have You Gone marks the Country Music Hall of Famer’s return. It’s been five years since Angels & Alcohol, his last studio album, and eight since The Bluegrass Album. At a time when hip-hop and pop permeate the genre, this two-disc set represents the same hard-country retrenchment Merle Haggard presented with Big City during the “Urban Cowboy” glut. Every bit as affecting, Where Have You Gone is the quiet superstar’s rebuke to those who would forget the roots of where this music comes from. Though quiet, almost shy, he threw down on HITS’ Holly Gleason, as they compared notes about Vern Gosdin, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell—.

This is a real live, hardcore, genuine honest-to-God country record. And it sounds amazing.
Thanks, Holly. Yeah, all the players kept coming up between takes, saying, “I can’t tell you how good it feels to play on a real country song.” So many said, “I don’t get to play on songs like this anymore.” They knocked me over, they were all playing so good. The fiddle and steel stuff just about killed me, it was so strong.

No more country, huh?
Country music is gone—and it’s not coming back. It’s like the 1980s again. I’m 62 years old; I’m not some 30-year-old stud. It’s not the same, but somebody has to bring it back, because it’s not just people in their 50s, it’s people in their 20s, too. All the kids and young people around my house? The older they’ve got, the more hardcore and traditional what they’ve leaned into has become.

How do you feel about this being such a strong hard country album, almost old-school.
It’s not old-school, it’s the real school. And I’m kinda pissed off like you are about what’s happened to the format, or whatever they wanna call it. I know I don’t have to make my records for country radio, so I decided to really...

Lean into it?
It’s even a little harder country than what I’ve done, but it’s what I’ve always dreamed about doing. I was driving out here in the country, where I live, listening to the mixes, and it’s so real. I actually teared up.

I was surprised to get so overly emotional. It’s not really like me, yet there I was.

It was a bit like this when you hit in the early ’90s.
Well, it reflects the sounds of the instruments I grew up on, steel and acoustic guitar, the fiddle and the way they all came together. It gave you a sound, but also a real feeling or emotions no other music really had. When I visualize back home and growing up, that’s what I hear. Merle, Jones, Hank Williams Jr.Hank Williams Sr. I found when I got here. There were a lot of young people who liked that music, but it felt like nobody was making it. Or maybe signing it and putting it out.

Then you got signed, and “Blue Blooded Woman, Redneck Man” came out. And then “Here in the Real World” happened.
The label didn’t expect anything. I was a fluke. I think they signed me so Clive [Davis] could say he was serious about country music. They called me Merle Haggard on milk, because I wasn’t as edgy as Merle or Jones. They were surprised when I took off like I did. But it comes down to [the fact that] people heard it and felt something; same thing with “Wanted,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” If people heard it, they responded.

Tell HITS: What’s country music?
Real country songs are life and love and heartache. They’re drinking. singing about Mama and having a good time, sad things, fun things. It’s kinda like that David Allen Coe song [“You Never Even Called Me by My Name”].

You’ve got some drinking songs.
“Way Down in My Whiskey,” “Wishful Drinking,” for sure. Remember Gary Stewart? I loved him, and when we started this up, I wanted to go there. Plus “Beer 10.”

You do much honky-tonkin’?
I don’t really go to clubs. But we still have a lot of young people around the house. They’re coming over, and I listen to what they say. I get a lot of ideas from my children and their friends. I wish you could see my cellphone [laughs]. A lot of my stuff comes out of cars and boats too, all the stuff I was raised around.

You get songs for weddings too.
Man... The first one was Mattie in the summer of 2017 [“You’ll Always Be My Baby”]. It was the first big wedding, and she wanted me to write one. You can’t really say “No,” but when it was done, I told ’em, “This is for all of you. I’m not writing each of you a separate song.”

And then “I Do” fell out?
It just came out one day; I don’t really know how. I wasn’t trying, but there it was.

Your mama’s on “Where Her Heart’s Always Been,” which you wrote for her funeral.
We were done with the mixes and everything. At Christmas, my sister sent me recordings of my mom reading the Bible. That was sweet. The last few years, she had a scratchy voice—and she was just such a sweet woman, hearing her read Scripture takes me right back.

You also lost your son-in-law when you’d started this album a few years ago.
When he died, I was kind of pissed off at the world. I just wasn’t feeling right about anything. You know how I was raised: I grew up with four older sisters, then Denise and our three girls. It’s all I was ever around: girls and women. So having a son-in-law was having a boy I could fish with, work on cars and stuff with. It was tough losing him so suddenly—so jarring to all of us. I lost something I’d never had before.

They say music can be healing. “A Man Who Never Cries” and “The Older I Get” are more philosophical about those bigger emotions.
Denise said, “A lot of those lines are true, but you do cry.” Honestly, I am pretty emotional. I’m just a person who has a lot of sentiment. I grew up with all that. If I hadn’t had country music… it’s like going to church: the feeling and the healing. And the fun ones, for me, are always the sad ones. You know, you listen to those steel parts, the fiddles, it’s just so much.

“The Boot” is also pretty reflective, plus you get down to cheating in “Write It in Red.” Man, the guy who’s been done wrong just never falters.
That idea in “The Boot” has been about beat to death: the old man in the bar and the young man coming for wisdom. But I’d never heard it done like that. And “Write It in Red” has got this great track and feels so good. The thing about cheating songs, especially when it’s a woman, it never happens that way. I use Keith [Stegall, his longtime producer] a lot to guide me. He really got that song.

And you go hard for country. “Where Have You Gone” is so straightforward, then you romp with “Bringing Country Back.”
I really wanted “Where Have You Gone” to be the first song, but then everybody agreed. It surprised me. But I think a lot of people are feeling what I’m feeling too.

Like Haggard with Goin’ Where the Lonely Go and Big City, you’re dropping this in the middle of everything that’s nothing like it.
In 1989, Real World came out—I would’ve been 31. No, gosh, I was 30 years old. I thought, “If my career lasts three or four years...,” I’d’ve been happy. I had no clue. I still don’t. I know I’ve changed, but I’m still pretty much the same. I still eat beans and cornbread, fool with my cars and go outside to watch the sunset. I’m not in the working man’s world, but my heart’s still there. I still think I have those same values—honest work, work hard, be decent. I never felt the need to chase anything different than the music. I was just lucky enough, other people liked what I did and felt it too.

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