There are few things so powerful as a man, his emotions, and a guitar. Never was that more evident than during this year’s Country Music Association (CMA) Awards show, when Alan Jackson debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”
A multitude of songs have been written and recorded in the wake of Sept. 11. But none captures the myriad emotions unleashed by the terrorist attacks on an unsuspecting nation more perfectly than Jackson’s eloquent ballad. The song — the lead single from his forthcoming Arista Nashville album, “Drive” — is currently at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart after a brief six-week climb.
Jackson vividly recalls the morning he wrote the song. “It was Sunday, Oct. 28,” he says. “I played a show down in Georgia Saturday night, and I flew home late. I got up [at] three or four in the morning, and that’s when the song [came], just out of nowhere… I got up, came down here, and put it on a digital recorder. I just sang it, didn’t even play guitar. I just sang the melody and lyrics right into it and went back to bed. I got up the next morning, and the girls [his wife, Denise, and their three daughters] went to Sunday school [while] I finished writing the verses. It just came out. I think it was a gift, and I’m just a messenger for it. It’s a very special song.”
In the lyric, Jackson’s words echo the hearts and minds of Americans after the tragedy. “A lot of those questions that I asked in [the song] were emotions I felt or things I had witnessed [while watching] television,” he says. “It was a real hard time. It really hit me hard. On [Sept. 11] and for weeks after that, I wasn’t right.”
Like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and other country troubadours before him, Jackson has a talent for tapping into emotions that resonate within the average man or woman. It’s a gift that has served him well during the past decade: He has released 11 previous albums, racking up 19 No. 1 singles and 10 platinum albums, including six Recording Industry Association of America-certified multi-platinum titles.
But after writing “Where Were You,” hit singles and platinum accolades were the farthest things from Jackson’s mind. “After Sept. 11, everybody was feeling so much emotion,” he says. “I imagine there’s probably not many songwriters out there that didn’t feel they needed to write something about it. I felt the same way. I wanted to write something, but I didn’t want to write some patriotic song… When I wrote this song, I was real reluctant about playing it. I played it for my wife, and of course she loved it, [but] I didn’t know if I wanted to record it.”
Jackson had been working on his upcoming album with longtime producer Keith Stegall, and he played the tune for him. Stegall quickly recorded it and encouraged Jackson to play it for executives at RCA Label Group. Little more than a week later, Jackson was performing it at the CMA Awards.
“The song is five minutes long, and [the CMA] never wants you to sing for more than two or three minutes, but everybody wanted me to do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to look like we were taking advantage of the situation to promote my career or something. It’s a meaningful song, and if it would help people and make people feel like there was somebody else who had the same feelings as they did, I wanted the song to be heard. But I’m glad we didn’t have our album done and [weren’t] promoting something [people] can buy. I didn’t want it to come across that way.”
It didn’t take long for the most-talked-about song of the year to gain steam at country radio, and though fans began clamoring for the record, the label opted not to release a commercial single. According to RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante, the release date on Jackson’s new project was moved up, from May to Jan. 15. “It wasn’t rushed,” Galante says of the record that Jackson and Stegall had already been working on. “It probably would have taken them two months to do what they had to do in one month.”
Galante describes the resulting album as “classic Alan Jackson. It’s so deep it’s ridiculous, in terms of the songs that are here. There’s nobody in [Nashville] that writes the way he does. That’s why he’s the success he is. It has that country feel to it, but it has little twists and turns on it. It kind of takes you on a journey. It’s a really wonderful ride.”
Well-known for his appreciation of automobiles, Jackson has chosen an appropriate title for his latest outing. “Drive” takes its name from the project’s opening cut, “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” “My daddy died a few years ago, and I wanted to write something for him,” he says. “I tried a couple of times, and I always ended up writing some sad dying song. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write something nice. Daddy didn’t say much, [but one of] the things he really gave me is my love for cars, and this whole song is a bunch of facts, really.”
In the first verse of “Drive,” Jackson explains how his father used to let him steer their old plywood boat. In the second verse, he tells of climbing behind the wheel of an old Ford truck and feeling like Mario Andretti when his dad let him drive. In the third verse, he sings of being grown and letting his daughters drive an old jeep across the pasture of his home.
“First Love” is another ode to a vehicle. The clever song (penned by Jackson) initially leads the listener to think his first love is a woman. In fact, he’s singing about a white 1955 Thunderbird. It was a car Jackson sold when he and Denise were newly married and needed the money to buy a house. A few years ago, she tracked the car down, bought it back, and surprised him with it as a gift. “I’ve meant to write a song about that car forever. I tried a couple of times and never could really write anything worth singing, and finally came up with this thing,” says Jackson.
“That car was such an important piece of my life. I worked from the time I was 12 years old, saving money to buy my first car. I bought that [car] when I was 15,” he recalls. “To have had that car anyway and then to get it back, the whole story is pretty neat.”
For an artist known for his shy demeanor and lack of self-promotion, Jackson’s tunes are often extremely autobiographical, revealing much about his treasured private life. “I don’t write about anything that makes me look bad,” he says with a laugh. “It’s hard to write songs that are from your life. My life is pretty simple, and if I don’t write about a car or something, then I won’t have anything to write about anyway.”
“One of the greatest things about Alan is you get a sense of who he is through his childhood and lifetime experiences, and you share them even though you didn’t grow up in Atlanta,” Galante says. “That’s one of the amazing things he does as a communicator. No matter where you are, whenever you hear one of his songs, to me, it’s like reading a short novel. I’m always amazed as [to] how much detail he puts into a line.”
Jackson either wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 cuts on “Drive.” In addition to the car tunes, there is both the studio version of “Where Were You” and a bonus track of the CMA performance. Jackson duets with George Strait on “Designated Drinker,” reprising the chemistry the high-powered duo demonstrated on the CMA Award-winning song “Murder on Music Row.” He cut the Irene Kelley/Mark Irwin tune “A Little Bluer Than That” after hearing Kelley perform the song at the Grand Ole Opry one night while listening to his radio.
Another Jackson-penned highlight is “Work in Progress,” a humorous plea for a wife to be patient with a husband who forgets their anniversary and to take out the trash. “My wife really liked that. She thinks a lot of married people will relate to that song,” says Jackson.
Jackson has a handful of February 2002 tour dates set up, kicking off Feb. 1 in Champaign, Ill. He’s also set to appear at Wisconsin’s “Country Fest” and “Country USA” on separate late June dates, as well as in July at the Country Concert Saloon in Fort Loramie, Ohio, and the Mountain Music Festival in Merrit, British Columbia.