'SINGER OF SIMPLE SONGS' SELLS 50 MILLION ALBUMSBy Beverly Keel
Alan Jackson stays true to traditional country music
When Alan Jackson learned his album sales had reached 50 million, his thoughts turned not to the moments when he had received the industry's highest awards, but to all the years he struggled, wondering if he'd ever be able to make a living in music.
On Wednesday, Jackson's rare achievement will be celebrated at an invitation-only party hosted by his label, Sony BMG Nashville.
"Alan's honesty in his singing and songwriting over all these years has led to this monumental achievement — 50 million albums sold," said Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville. "He continues to put out records like his latest hit — and 33rd No. 1 — 'Good Time,' and he will continue to set even higher sales plateaus as the years go on."
Jackson, who will turn 50 in October, said the accomplishment is special, especially in today's environment of decreased record sales. "I'm just very proud of it, and surprised as well that it's still going on after nearly 20 years."
Growing up, Jackson listened to traditional country artists such as Conway Twitty and George Jones. "At the time, they were kind of secondary to some of the more contemporary pop stuff that was hot in country music. I kept saying, 'Somebody young needs to carry on that sound. That is real country music.'
"Randy Travis came along before I moved to Nashville and opened the door for all of that. That is why I came to town; I wanted to carry that on."
Jackson remains frustrated by the music industry's treatment of traditional country artists.
"From day one, no matter how many albums or tickets me or anybody else that does real country music has sold, or awards they've won, it seems like you're always secondary, or Nashville is always apologizing for real country music and always trying to broaden their appeal by changing the style of music. That has always bugged me."
He pauses, then adds, "It's hard for me to complain about any of that, because radio has played me all along."
Clad in khaki shorts and a lime green polo shirt, Jackson sits in a black leather chair in a spotless building that houses his desk, which is fashioned out of the front of a red Ford pickup, and an impressive collection of shiny vintage cars. To the Jacksons, it's "the garage," but it's not like any garage most people will ever see.
The son of a Newnan, Ga., mechanic, Jackson developed an interest in cars at an early age and even worked in the used-car business. By age 20, however, he had begun performing covers of country songs with local bands and writing some of his own songs.
In 1985, Jackson moved to Nashville with wife Denise, a flight attendant, to try to make it as a country singer.
"I was so ignorant about it," he says. " 'I don't know anything, but I'm going to give it five years, and if I can't get something going, I guess I can just go back to Newnan and try to make a living some way.' I think it was just about five years when I finally got the record deal," he adds, laughing.
But, as he quickly learned, that was only the beginning.
He released his debut album, Here in the Real World, on Arista/Nashville in 1990. His first single, "Blue Blooded Woman," topped out at No. 44 on the country singles charts.
"All of these years, Denise and I were waiting to have children until we felt like we could afford to have them," said Jackson. "All of a sudden, she was pregnant with Mattie and my first single died. It was like, 'Uh oh. If I don't have the next single, that is probably it. That's probably the end of my career, and we haven't even made a dime.' "
Fortunately for him, that next single, "Here in the Real World," reached No. 1 and was named the TNN/Music City News song of the year. The album turned out to contain four No. 1 hits. It was certified gold in September 1990 and platinum six months later. He won the Academy of Country Music's award as top new male vocalist in 1990.
The Jacksons made their first significant purchase with his increased earnings. "I remember us looking for baby furniture," he said. "The whole set — dresser, rocking chair and baby bed — was like $1,500-$1,800. We had to call our business manager, 'Can we buy this?' We were still living in a basement apartment of a brick house in Donelson. I remember that was one of the first big purchases that we could write a check for."
Keep on rolling
Jackson followed up his 2 million-selling debut album with 1991's Don't Rock the Jukebox, which sold 4 million copies and spawned five No. 1 hits. But he says it was 1992's A Lot About Livin' (And A Little 'Bout Love) that really "broke" him as a new act. That album included four No. 1 singles, including the smash "Chattahoochee," which won CMA awards for single and song of the year, and eventually sold 6 million copies.
"My second daughter, Ali, was born the day we had either a No. 1 party or platinum party for the album," said Jackson. "Denise couldn't come; she was in the hospital. I went to the party and I had a big button made with Ali's footprint on it. We always called her the 'Chattahoochee baby.' "
Although Jackson's career has never been cold — he won the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year award in 1995, 2002 and 2003 — it's had its ups and downs.
"They always tell me, 'Your career is like this: You're hot (and) come out with some songs that impact people. Then your sales go up. Then you flatten out for a while. . . . Then you have another big album.' "
His 11th album, Drive, released in 2002, was one of those "big albums," selling 4 million copies and winning album of the year awards at the CMAs and ACMs. Among the songs on Drive was the No. 1 hit "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," a song about 9/11 that won the CMA and ACM awards for single and song of the year and a Grammy for best country song.
"That was a special song that came out of nowhere," he says. "I think it took me to a different level as a songwriter. A lot of people treated me different for a while. It felt kind of weird, actually. I hated for people to talk to me about it, because they looked at me like I was some kind of saint or something for writing it. I kept saying, 'It's like the song says: I'm just a singer of simple songs.' That (song) came express mail from somewhere else."
Still not coasting
Jackson says many of the places and people he encountered along the way are a blur now, because he spent more than 300 days a year on the road in the early days.
"It's sad, in a way, because I've had so many experiences," he says. "I've met legendary actors like Jimmy Stewart. I've been to the White House two or three times and played for three presidents. I've played some of the nastiest dives you could ever imagine. I've done a lot of great things, (but) it does all run together."
Still, he doesn't take any of it for granted. "I'm glad my career has lasted this long and for my children to be old enough to see what I do and have done and be able to remember it," he says. "If my career had died when they were young, they wouldn't have remembered much about it.
"I see acts who opened for me and went on to be big acts, and might have even outsold me for a year or two, and then they're gone. It's sad."
By now, Jackson has released 17 albums and more than 50 singles, and he says he hasn't worried about his career since the late '90s. "I felt I was very fortunate to have lasted as long as I have, so anything after that is icing on the cake."
Just as he doesn't take his success for granted, however, neither is he resting on his laurels. "I wasn't just going to quit trying to make good albums. You've got to tour a little bit or you appear to have retired. I've seen other artists say, 'I'm going to quit touring,' and the next thing you know, they have a hard time trying to get songs on the radio.
"Gosh, I don't work enough now to even qualify for a real job," he says, laughing, "so it's hard to 'retire' from what I do.
"If it keeps going, great. If it slows down to where I can't sell tickets out there anymore and radio won't play my songs and album sales drop and the whole thing fizzles out, I'll just retire. It's like (being) a boxer: You've got to figure out when to step down or you start looking bad.
"But even then, I think I would still make records, even if I couldn't tour like I would want to, because I enjoy making them. That is the most fulfilling part. I think I'd still sell a few, because people want to hear something."
Photo by Russ Harrington