09/25/2006

COUNTRY BEAT DRIVES HIM

CHART TOPPING SONGS BY ALAN JACKSON HARMONIZE WITH THE VETERAN ARTIST'S VIEWS OF LIFE AND THE WORLD By Michael McCall Special to The Times Nashville -- Alan Jackson realizes perceptions of him shifted after his 9/11 elegy, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," became a standard-bearer country hit. "I get the vibe that people expect something more meaty from me now," he says in a drawl still as laid-back and rural as the day he left Newnan, Ga., nearly 20 years ago to move to Nashville. "But, dang, people need to back up and look at the rest of my career. I've had about every kind of song there is: fun and up-tempo, real serious ballads, songs about drinking or cheating or being in love, personal songs about my parents and my wife and my children. I've always tried to mix it up, and that's what I'm still doing now." Indeed, after 31 No. 1 hits and more than 40 million in record sales since his 1989 debut, Jackson ranks with George Strait and Reba McEntire as one of the most enduring country stars of his age. A prolific songwriter, he wrote 23 of his chart-topping hits, a rare feat among modern Nashville artists. His songs usually are drawn directly from his life and his worldview, which aligns him more with legendary country stars like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn than with his peers. He also continues to record downbeat heartbreakers like his recent No. 5 hit, "Monday Morning Church "— about a man angry with God because his wife died prematurely — during an era when crying-in-your-beer songs are considered unfashionable in country music. "You know, if I was a new act, a young guy coming along with the same sound I have now, I think I'd have a hard time getting on the radio," Jackson says. "Shoot, the way things are now, I'd probably have a hard time getting a record deal." Jackson is out of step with modern Nashville in other ways too. He's a soft-spoken anti-celebrity during a time when country stars tend to be polemicists who jump at every media opportunity. He's also fashioned a life in which he spends the majority of time at his rural home outside of Franklin, Tenn., with his wife of 25 years, Denise, and their three daughters. He avoids press interviews and rarely makes television appearances, turning down offers for network and cable specials and other high-profile opportunities. "I'm sure the record company and people I work with wish I'd do more of them," he says with a chuckle. "They always bring me the offers and requests. It's not that I'm too good to do them. It's just that I've done a lot of those things over the years, and these days I'm trying to spend more time with my family than I did early in my career."Reticent even early on, Jackson curtailed his public activities after he and his wife briefly separated in the mid-1990s. Increased time at home seemed to make him more relaxed in public, and his songwriting, always a strong component of his music, grew deeper and more resonant. "I just got to where I was wearing myself out watching the charts and trying to keep up with everything in the business and trying to do everything everyone wanted me to do," he says. "At some point I realized I could do every TV show and every interview and every promotional thing in the world, and if I didn't have a three-minute song that got people's attention, none of it really mattered. "Success isn't measured by how many interviews you do; it's how many songs you have that people like. The bottom line is you have to come up with a song that makes people want to go out and buy it or call the radio station to say they want to hear it. The biggest promotional tool you can have is good songs." Because of his focus on home, Jackson surprised the Nashville industry when it became known that he had started his own label, ACR — an acronym for Alan's Country Records which, by design, is RCA backward. ACR isn't directly affiliated with BMG, the parent company of RCA and Arista. But the company has first rights to distribute any record ACR releases. Joe Galante, chairman of RLG Records, the BMG company that oversees the Nashville divisions of RCA and Arista, says he agreed to Jackson's label because he knew the Georgia singer would be selective about signing new acts. When Galante headed up BMG's U.S. division for several years in the '90s, he says, "I had situations where artists wanted labels so they could sign eight or nine acts and develop a little empire of their own. But that's not what Alan wanted to do. If you know Alan, you know he likes to concentrate on one thing at a time. I was all for that." Jackson's initial plans for ACR were mostly personal. "I just wanted a place where I could do some side projects of my own," he says, citing his 2002 Christmas album and possibly a second album of his favorite country covers as a follow-up to his 1999 platinum album, "Under the Influence." "And I thought if I found someone I wanted to promote, I could put them on there." ACR's first non-Jackson release, "The Wrights," comes out May 3. The duo, consisting of Jackson's nephew Adam Wright and Adam's wife, Shannon, sing old-school harmony over honky-tonk fiddle, steel guitar and piano. Both of them performed in the Atlanta area before moving to Nashville in 2002. "They were already talking to several record labels and were going to sign to a major label anyway," Jackson says. "Adam's concern, like a lot of artists who are songwriters and musicians, was that someone would sign them and want to change them. So I told them, 'You're welcome to go get you a record deal, but if you want to control your own product, you can be on my label, and I can advise you as much as I can.' " They jumped at the chance. "He knew we were getting real close to getting a deal," Adam Wright says. "He called out of the blue and invited us to his house and offered us a deal. He said we wouldn't have to compromise anything if we were on his label. It was a dream situation." Does that mean Jackson is beginning to transition from artist to label chief? Not by a longshot, he says. "Nah, I like making music too much," he says with a shrug. "I ain't going nowhere. I'm feeling like I have things pretty good."

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