It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning as Alan Jackson settles his 6-foot-4-inch frame into a chair in his manager’s office. Even though, like most musicians, he often plays late into the night, he’s usually an early riser.
“I’m always afraid I’m going to miss something, I guess,” he says. “I just want to get up and get going, enjoy the day.”
He’s also enjoying a whole new environment as a recording artist these days. After more than two decades on Arista Nashville, where he reigned supreme as the first act signed to the label, Jackson has shifted to EMI for the 13-song collection “Thirty Miles West,” due June 5.
Indeed, Jackson, 53, has accomplished quite a bit since moving to Nashville from his tiny hometown of Newnan, Ga. He’s recorded 13 studio albums, three hits collections, two holiday sets and his first gospel album, “Precious Memories” (2006), which was recently rereleased. He’s placed 80 songs on Billboard’s country singles chart, including 51 top 10 hits and 26 No. 1s, among them “Chattahoochee,” “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and the poignant post-9/11 ballad “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” The winner of numerous industry awards, including three Country Music Assn. (CMA) entertainer of the year titles, Jackson’s greatest accomplishment may be his overall sales tally of close to 40 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
As a composer, Jackson is in an elite group of songwriters, including Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who’ve written more than 20 of their own chart-topping tunes. In the country format, he’s second only to Merle Haggard in terms of writing or co-writing No. 1 hits that he’s also recorded.
Some artists of his stature might be tempted to rest on their laurels, but not Jackson. He wrote six songs on his latest album, including “Dixie Highway,” a tune featuring his friend Zac Brown that inspired the album’s title — Jackson’s hometown is 30 miles west of the Dixie Highway that runs from Florida up to Michigan.
“He always brings those elements back of the way he was raised and that part of his life, which is very rich in imagery and metaphor,” says Keith Stegall, who has produced every Jackson album except 2006’s “Like Red on a Rose,” which was helmed by Alison Krauss. “Alan conjures up everything about his upbringing, and he’s able to put it into a song. ‘Dixie Highway’ was a blast to record.”
Other new tunes were inspired by Jackson’s family. “Her Life’s a Song” celebrates the variety of music that his three daughters enjoy hearing on their iPods — a broad range that covers everything from country to hip-hop. The album’s emotional closer, “When I Saw You Leaving,” chronicles his feelings during his wife’s struggle with colorectal cancer last year.
“I just wanted to do it for Denise. It was the hardest thing we’ve ever recorded in the studio,” he says, admitting that he broke down during the session.
Denise is now cancer-free and Jackson is gearing up for the album’s release. He shot a video for the current single, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” which is No. 29 on the Hot Country Songs chart, and he’ll visit multiple media outlets to promote it, including NBC’s “Today” and CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” on June 5. In addition, he’ll be featured on the covers of several magazines, including CMA Close Up and Country Weekly.
TV channel GAC will feature a week of programming around the album’s release dedicated to Jackson, including “Noteworthy at the Opry,” “Backstory” and “Precious Memories,” Capitol Records Nashville senior VP of marketing Cindy Mabe says. He’ll also serve as GAC’s Artist of the Month in June, as well as perform at this year’s CMA Music Festival on the main stage at LP Field on June 10. The label also plans to have a large street team campaign at the CMA festival.
Mabe says that several contests are planned specifically for radio, and there will be a New York promotion to see Jackson perform on “Letterman.”
“I believe that Alan has just made one of the most important and special albums of his career,” Mabe says. “‘Thirty Miles West’ shows the layers of depth behind his songwriting and delivery. He’s so open about life, whether it’s the vulnerability he experienced going through his wife’s battle with cancer or how his daughters relate to music and life … This music is as real and powerful as anything he’s ever released, and I believe it will reconnect him to the fans.”