Alan Jackson: The Billboard Cover Story

'TRAIN' ON TRACK

The Newnan, Ga., native made his Arista debut with his 1989 album "Here in the Real World," which the RIAA has certified double-platinum. Since then he's continually populated country radio with such hits as "Don't Rock the Jukebox," "Drive," "Remember When" and "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," placing more than 50 songs in the top 10 of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, including 25 No. 1s.

Along the way, he's only taken two slight detours. In 2006, he released both "Precious Memories," a gospel project originally recorded as a Christmas gift for his mother that sold 1.8 million units, and "Like Red on a Rose," a critically acclaimed collection of love songs produced by Alison Krauss that sold 812,000 copies.

"Like Red on a Rose" is Jackson's only album that wasn't produced by Keith Stegall. He reteamed with Stegall for 2008's "Good Time," a return to his roots that produced the singles "Small Town Southern Man," "Country Boy," "Sissy's Song" and "I Still Like Bologna." He wrote all 17 songs on "Good Time," but on his new effort, he either wrote or co-wrote seven.

"Keith and I get in there and try to figure out the songs and we always try to pick the ones that fit together," he says. "I don't care if I have all of mine on there or none of mine as long as it's a good album. That's the way that I've always tried to do it."

The album's title track was written by Canadian singer/songwriter Fred Eaglesmith. "I heard it on satellite radio one day in the car," Jackson says. "I listen to bluegrass on there a lot. I wasn't familiar with it, and I thought it would be a good remake."

Jackson also includes a potent cover of the Vern Gosdin classic "Till the End" as a duet with Lee Ann Womack. "I've always loved that one," he says. "After Vern died, I wanted to do a song in tribute to him and that's one of the first ones I thought of."

The first single, "It's Just That Way," was written by Stegall, Vicky McGehee and Kylie Sackley, and is No. 25 on Hot Country Songs. "I wanted to do a love song for a change," Jackson says. "I haven't had one in a while."

Among Jackson's self-penned contributions are "Hard Hat and a Hammer," a tribute to blue-collar workers; "The Best Keeps Getting Better," a love song about the rewards of a long-term relationship; and "After 17," written about his eldest daughter, Mattie.

"If you listen to that song and knew anything about me, you'd say, 'Oh, yeah, he wrote that about his daughter,' but I try not to write songs that are so specific that they wouldn't apply to anybody," he says. "It's a typical story of a young person leaving home."

Sony Music Nashville chairman Joe Galante says "Freight Train" is "exactly what you expect it to be: a great country record. There's nothing wrong with that. He's gone from 'Chattahoochee' to observing the world in 'Where Were You,' and now his kids are going off to school and here comes 'After 17.' You're watching the man go through his life and you're experiencing that journey with him."

OVER 50, BUT FAR FROM OVER

Jackson turned 51 last October, yet in a youth-obsessed world, he, Strait and Reba McEntire keep scoring radio hits and selling records. "They are still the most consistent hitmakers in the format," KIIM Tucson, Ariz., PD Buzz Jackson says. "I'm thrilled every time a new George Strait or Alan Jackson album arrives because I know they will be full of great songs. I literally just played [Jackson's] 'Remember When' on the air a few minutes ago and remarked about what a great song it still is. He's a modern-day poet."

KIIM's Jackson also notes that country artists face less age-related challenges than those in other formats. "The pop audience, in general, has a much shorter attention span. The country [fan] is more invested personally in the format and in the music."

Galante says Music Row's publishing community respects the fact that Jackson is a skilled songwriter-and it also appreciates that he's open to recording songs by other writers. "The publishers know that he has had hits that were not his songs," Galante says. "I've never spoken to Alan about a single and had him say to me, 'Don't go with that one because I didn't write it.' "

Though country fans may lag behind their pop and R&B counterparts in terms of embracing digital technology, Jackson sees that changing. "The fan base that I've had all these years has come along. Some of them are not as plugged into the digital world, so they want to go out and buy the CD at Walmart or something," he says. "On the other hand, we had a pretty good number of digital [sales] off the 'Good Time' album, so somebody is buying stuff on the Internet as well."

Though Jackson has an informative and well-developed Web site, he's not into Twitter and doesn't blog. KKGO Los Angeles PD Tonya Campos says veteran country acts learned to connect with their fans before such technology existed. "Artists like Reba, George Strait and Alan Jackson were not fortunate enough to have Twitter, Facebook or MySpace that someone like Taylor Swift has had at her fingertips since the beginning of her career. But they have incorporated wider means to capture an audience, and they've proved their music is still in demand."

COOKING UP SOME MERCHANDISE

For Jackson, one of those means is through a deal with the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants. Last November, he became the first artist to have an entire line of branded merchandise sold through the 593-outlet chain, which previously dabbled in select CDs and merch, including a pink Dolly Parton rocking chair.

"It's just my kind of people," Jackson says of the Cracker Barrel crowd. "I've been a lot of places and my wife, Denise, she likes a lot of the fancy restaurants. I'm more of a basic eater. I still go into Cracker Barrel. Those are the kind of people who like the kind of music I'm making."

Jackson's line of merchandise includes rocking chairs, Western shirts, salt-and-pepper shakers, a blanket, a leather box, T-shirts, Christmas ornaments and a cookbook. There was also a CD exclusive to Cracker Barrel, "Alan Jackson: Songs of Love and Heartache," that includes hits and two previously unreleased tracks. The products are available throughout 41 states as well as online.

"The Alan Jackson collection is important for our whole music and merchandising program," Cracker Barrel VP of marketing Peter Keiser says. "It was a test for us. It was the first time we had developed a deal with a country artist and introduced products beyond music. Alan is the right artist for us, and we designed the product line to give our guests the opportunity to share in the relaxed lifestyle, country heritage and family connections that Alan writes about in his music."

Though Keiser declined to provide specific sales figures for the Jackson line, he says the products are selling briskly. "We hope to continue to refine it [by] working with Alan-and potentially down the road we'll evaluate some other artists," he says.

While its competitors have struggled in the economic downturn, "Cracker Barrel thrives because of two things: the location of the stores and the accessibility to a large sector of the public," says Elissa Elan, East Coast bureau chief at Nation's Restaurant News. "The whole Americana feel associated with the brand resonates right now with the public. And the partnership with Alan Jackson ties in perfectly with that profile."

Though an agreement had yet to be signed at press time, discussions are under way about Cracker Barrel sponsoring Jackson's upcoming tour.

'FISHING WHERE THE FISH ARE'

Beyond the expansion of his merch, when it comes to letting fans know there's a new record coming from a veteran artist, the tried-and-true methods are most reliable. "It's always a challenge, but the beautiful thing is that Alan Jackson is a brand, and people know what to expect from him," Sony Music Nashville VP of marketing Tom Baldrica says. Jackson will perform on NBC's "Today" on the album's street date, and, Baldrica says, he'll "obviously be on CMT, GAC and Country Weekly. You just go at the country consumer. It's not anything fancy. It's going fishing where the fish are."

Ray Uhlir, Sony Music Nashville senior director of marketing and artist development, says there will also be an iTunes Countdown. "It's a different track each week for three weeks in front of the record and then with the iTunes 'Complete My Album' opportunity," he says.

Jackson will showcase new music Feb. 25 in a performance at Sony Music Nashville's luncheon during the annual Country Radio Seminar. The label also has other plans to engage radio. "The last album we launched we did 'Breakfast With Alan,' " Baldrica says. "We took some of his top markets and basically had a recurring feature for the entire week, where Alan called into the radio station every day. He had a bunch of fun with it."

When Jackson hits the road this year, he'll be working with a new booking agency. After more than 10 years with Creative Artists Agency, he recently switched to William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. "The first part of my career, I had my own kind of promotion outfit, we booked our own stuff, and then we went [with CAA] for a long time. But I just got to a point where sometimes a little change might be good," Jackson says.

There may be more changes in Jackson's future. "This is actually my last album for Arista," he says. "My contract is up after this, so I guess I'll be doing something for somebody or on my own. I don't know yet. I haven't really thought about it that much. I guess it's time to start thinking about it now."

One thing is for certain: Retirement is not an option. "I'm very lucky to still be a part of this," he says. "As long as I'm still able to have a hit on the radio and sell a few albums and some tickets, I don't see that it would be worth retiring. If you just do 50-60 shows a year, it's not that much time away from home.

"I've always said, there's not much to retire from," Jackson continues. "It's not really hard work. This is a business. This is a job. You have to work, commit and be dedicated. It's also fun and rewarding, and it's not near as hard work as most of my fans have to do for a living. It's hard to complain."

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