08/23/2007

Laid back? Alan Jackson says he's always busy

By Janis Fontaine
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

"There's probably not a lot of real mysteries about me," Alan Jackson says by phone. "The one I've heard so much is that I'm so laid-back. I'm not. I'm very motivated, and I don't hardly shut down, my mind's always working, and I'm very project oriented, busy all the time."

It's 9 a.m. Monday in Nashville, and Jackson is busy already. His most recent project is Like Red on a Rose, a collection of songs chosen and produced by bluegrass queen Alison Krauss. Don't expect fiddles and pedal steel. Rose is more characteristic of adult contemporary pop, with a strong blues flavor.

"I think she's got an excellent ear," says Jackson, who appears in concert tonight at Sound Advice Amphitheatre. "I've always admired her records. She has her own unique sound, and it's always interesting."

Krauss had nearly total creative control over the production. She chose the songs, the arrangements and the musicians, but Jackson says, "It took both of us to get it where it ended up."

Where it ended up is Jackson's most romantic album yet, full of sensual, lyrical songs that are more mature, sung by a man who knows what long-lasting love is: "It's for one of those late evenings, where you open a bottle of wine, light a candle and sit on the couch with your sweetheart."

A comment Vince Gill made a few years ago that likened Jackson's music to McDonald's — "You always know what you're going to get" — wasn't the huge inspiration it's been made out to be.

"It's not like I was heartbroken or disturbed for years by it," he says with a laugh. "It was just something in the moment when he said it, I looked at it and thought, 'So that's what people think of me.' That the music's so repetitive and similar that you know what it's going to be. I know it wasn't meant in a derogatory way. But it hit me that maybe I'm kind of boring."

Not many Jackson fans would agree with that.

'Phenomenal career'

"The challenge has always been to find enough songs that work well together to make a good album and hopefully a couple of them will stand out and be great records," he says. "But I've never really calculated that much. I just try to make the best record at the place I'm at in my career at the time. Pick the songs that go with that."

So where is that?

"I'm just happy to be here," he says, laughing again. "I've had a phenomenal career and I've done so much more than I ever thought I'd be able to. But it's always a good feeling to create a new song, especially if it's a hit that affects people, that's very gratifying. That's always been the one part of the creative side that doesn't get boring. It's something you create from the heart. Touring has become more of a job, even making the records.

"But then, things come along, like that little gospel album I made for my mom for Christmas just kind of jumped out there on its own and did great and I was very proud of that. It was fun to make and it meant a lot to me. Just old songs that I grew up with and I loved. I think a change of pace, making a record like that every now and then makes it all worthwhile."

That "little gospel album," Precious Memories, has already gone platinum and was nominated for Album of the Year by the CMA. Jackson originally recorded it as a Christmas gift for his mother and mother-in-law, using his wife and daughters for harmony and background vocals. They planned to burn just a few discs for family.

"My wife said she thought a lot of people would like to have it, but I never thought it would do as well as it's done. There were so many compliments and comments about it. It's just been amazing the reaction I've gotten to the thing."

It wasn't the first time Jackson's work has performed better than he expected. "I made an album called Under the Influence one time, an album of songs by artists I was influenced by, and we made it not necessarily for commercial release or radio release, but it was accepted well and it just took off on its own. That's great when it does that."

Jackson seems to understand intuitively what his fans want. But that's not to say there's a typical Alan Jackson fan.

"It's amazing, even in my younger career, I've always had this mixed-up crowd where I'd have little kids that love Chattahoochee and grandmas that love Here in the Real World. I've always just had this real wide age of fans and different lifestyles."

At the Superdome

One song fans still want is to hear Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), Jackson's touching tear-jerker about 9/11.

"I was a little surprised how that song took off. I was concerned initially with even releasing it and after that I thought people will want to hear it for a year or so and it'll be time to take it out of the show. Now I feel like there's still a lot of people sitting out there waiting to hear it, and I think part of the reason is that the message isn't necessarily about that day, it's a bigger message."

Jackson recently spread that message of love to fans at the Louisiana Superdome, his first concert there since Katrina tore New Orleans apart.

"I was concerned about going, but I think people were excited to have some entertainment in there. I watched the first game the Saints played and it was like the Super Bowl, so I realized people are ready to get back to life down there. To my fans down there, it meant a lot to them."

Jackson also performed a benefit concert in conjunction with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in October, when a Nashville-area family whose home was destroyed by a tornado was featured. The mother had sheltered her two children beneath her as the tornado destroyed their home. Falling debris crushed her vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed.

"It just worked out," Jackson says modestly, of the concert that raised more than $100,000. "It was a hometown problem, and we try to do a few things," he says, sounding pretty, well, laid-back.

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