WHAT JACKSON DOESWHAT JACKSON DOES September 18, 2004 By DEBORAH EVANS PRICE As the release of a new album approaches, most artists begin to wax philosophical about art, life and the messages they hope to convey with their music. In discussing his new Arista Nashville album, "What I Do," released Sept. 7, Alan Jackson takes a more down-home approach. "My wife said every song I write has either food or cars in it," Jackson says with a laugh. "I said, 'I write about what I like.'" In truth, Jackson's musical contributions during his 15-year career cover a much broader range of topics. From the poignant post-Sept. 11, 2001, ballad "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" to the fun-loving "Chattahoochee" to the wistful nostalgia of "Remember When" to his current hit love song "Too Much of a Good Thing," Jackson has continually served up songs that strike a universal chord with audiences. His warm, heartfelt baritone and ability to write or find great songs have placed Jackson at the top of the format. He's the Country Music Assn.'s reigning entertainer of the year. Since debuting in 1989, Jackson has placed 64 titles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. Of those, 38 have reached the top five and 22 have claimed the No. 1 spot, among them "Don't Rock the Jukebox," "Little Bitty," "Where I Come From," and "Drive (For Daddy Gene)." Of the 15 Jackson album titles to hit the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, nine have been certified multiplatinum. Early tallies show Jackson giving Tim McGraw a fight for the No. 1 slot on next week's Billboard 200 (see Over the Counter, page 65). "Too Much of a Good Thing" is currently at No. 7 on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. "It's another solid Alan Jackson single," says WUBE Cincinnati operations manager Tim Closson. "It's one that really grows on you." Closson describes Jackson's new album as "stone country, but that's what you expect from A.J. Right now, nobody does that better. Alan could sing a grocery list right now and it would be a hit." "What I Do" is a musical feast that includes both lighter fare such as "If French Fries Were Fat Free" and "The Talkin' Song Repair Blues" as well as such meaty tracks as "You Don't Have to Paint Me a Picture" and "Monday Morning Church." The latter is one of the most potent ballads in country music since George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." "It's this guy's story of surviving his wife's or partner's death and how he's mad at God about it," Jackson says of the song, which is the first one Nashville songwriters Brent Baxter and Erin Enderlin have had recorded. "It gives me chill bumps when I hear it." The song was almost recorded by Lee Ann Womack, but Jackson says he's glad he got it instead. "It's about trying to survive after you've lost a loved one and just how every little thing you touch or see stirs up the memories and makes it hard," Jackson says. It will be the next single. "[The lyric says,] 'She left her Bible laying there and he put it in a drawer,' " Jackson says. "I know when my daddy died, my mama still had his shaving stuff in the cabinets. She wouldn't take it out. It's just little things like that that mean a lot to you when you are connected to somebody every day." Though Tim Johnson wrote the title track about the challenges of making it in the music business, Jackson says, "I've lived all that. I've gotten doors slammed in my face, people telling me to go back to Georgia and work little bars with nobody there to listen to me. "A lot of times when you get to the level I'm at now, [people think you're] this big star and there's something magical about you, but really you are just the same old guy that sang in those bars 20 years ago, doing some of the same songs. People forget what you've [gone] through to get here." The song, he says, "gave me a chance to thank all these people who've supported my music all this time. I thought it was a real pretty song, a real pretty melody." Though Jackson and longtime producer Keith Stegall found some great outside songs, Jackson also wrote five cuts on the album, among them "USA Today" "Rainy Day in June" and "Too Much of a Good Thing." RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante says Jackson's commitment to great songs has fueled his career. "That's the beauty of what he does," Galante says. "Just when you think, 'What else could he do?' he comes up with songs like 'Monday Morning Church,' 'Rainy Day in June' and 'There You Go.' He gets excited about the songs and country music." ALAN'S COUNTRY RECORDS The album features guest appearances by Patty Loveless, who adds harmony vocals on "Monday Morning Church" and the Oak Ridge Boys' bass singer Richard Sterban on "Burnin' the Honky Tonks Down." The album also includes contributions by Jackson's nephew, Adam Wright, and Wright's wife, Shannon. They sing background on the album and contributed two songs, "Strong Enough" and "If Love Was A River." Known as the Wrights, the couple will have an album out next spring on Jackson's own imprint, ACR, in a joint venture with RCA Records. While noting with a laugh that the acronym for his imprint is "RCA" spelled backwards, Jackson says, "it actually stands for Alan's Country Records. I always wanted to have a label that I could do gospel, bluegrass or whatever I wanted to do that wasn't actually mainstream stuff like I have on Arista." So when Jackson renegotiated his deal with RLG two years ago, he says, "I made up my own label. They'll distribute for me and I'll do my special projects on there, whatever I want to do. If I wanted to sign somebody else, I could. I just like helping talented people that I feel deserve a shot." STRATEGIC VISION Jon Elliot, VP of marketing and artist development, appreciates how Jackson has broadened his market. "When you go to his concerts, not only does he have fans that have been there since he made his first record," Elliot says, "but you have young fans. He's bridging generations and bringing in new fans as he goes along . . . That's the only way you can grow." Media will be a key factor, as plans call for Jackson to do "Today" and "Late Show With David Letterman" during street week. Elliot says there will also be TV ad buys on "the core sports shows and women's shows to try to hit a broad spectrum." According to Elliot, the street date was strategically chosen to take advantage of lower ad rates between the Olympics and the presidential election. "Advertising is at a premium right now," he says. "So we are in a good spot, because the Olympics ended and the Republican Convention has ended. We are in this tiny little window which is a good time for us to do some advertising, but the window will be closing." The label also took advantage of the big video screens used during Jackson's recent tour dates to run spots for the new album, and they distributed materials about the album in the parking lots at Jackson's shows. "The reason why people don't buy a new release is they don't know it's available," Elliot says. "So, why not go to the people you know are spending hard-earned dollars for a concert ticket to let them know there's a new album coming out?" Retail is bracing for brisk sales. "We bought it as big as the last record," says Brian Smith, VP of store operations for Value Central Entertainment. "The single is upbeat and in keeping with his past material, and they did a good video on the first single. He is certainly poised, based on the last record, to have continuing legs at radio." Jackson says when he goes in to record a new album, he doesn't worry about topping his previous success. "Keith and I just try to find the best songs, whether I write them or he does or whoever," says Jackson, who is managed by Nancy Russell of Nashville-based Force Inc. and Howard Kaufman of HK Management in Los Angeles. "I'm in a really comfortable place where I can just relax, try to enjoy it and make the record I want to," he adds. "Hopefully somebody will like it. I've already had too much good luck––I can't keep expecting it to go on forever." Asked whether he would ever retire, Jackson laughs and says, "I don't know what I'd retire from. I don't work that much now. I work as few dates as I can each year because I like to stay at home with my family. I guess I'll just keep going. I told somebody the other day, 'No sense jumping off a fast-moving train. I'll just wait until it stops.' "