03/17/2008

LIFE IS BETTER THAN EVER FOR ALAN JACKSON

The Tennessean

Alan Jackson named his new album Good Time, which is also an apt description for this time in his life.

The lanky, mustachioed country superstar's latest album debuted this week at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 and country albums charts, his fourth release to do so.

But it is the personal milestones that seem more significant to Jackson these days.

He turns 50 on Oct. 17. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of his marriage to Denise, his high school sweetheart. Their three daughters, Mattie, 17, Ali, 14, and Dani, 10, are thriving (and the oldest is even, gulp, dating).

The family's properties include a 24,000-square-foot Southern manor on 140 acres along the Harpeth River in Williamson County, a house on Center Hill Lake and a Florida vacation home. Jackson is no longer the only household member to top the charts: Denise's first book, It's All About Him: Finding the Love of My Life, debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times' best-sellers list.

"It's a wonderful time," Alan Jackson said. "Denise and I, of course, are happier than we've ever been, and our children are all healthy and happy. It's a fairy tale, it really is."

It's a life rich enough to make his thriving music career feel like a part-time job.

"It's pretty much on cruise control other than when we make a new album, trying to come up with new material and recording. Other than that, I go out and play a few dates," he said.

"I'll be honest with you, after all these years, I don't like going out and sitting on that bus. I have to leave the house at 5 o'clock Friday afternoon and fly to Idaho or something and my kids are out there cooking out on the grill and they'll have a nice evening there. It's hard to leave Nashville and go do that because that is where I want to be."

Jackson reveals candid side

But it's time for Jackson to get back to work promoting his new album. On this gray Monday, he took a few moments to relax on his bus after completing an exhaustive round of early-morning satellite radio interviews from a Music Row studio. Clad in white sneakers and blue jeans and swapping his cowboy hat for a baseball cap, Jackson could have easily slipped by unnoticed.

His public image is that of a shy, laid-back and easygoing man content to tinker with his cars and strum on his guitar. But that image, spurred on by his deep Georgia drawl and lack of fondness for interviews, is misleading. The real Jackson is also smart, quick-witted, strongly opinionated and sometimes stubborn. Behind that aw-shucks persona is a man who can hold his own on The View.

"I'm both," he said of the contradicting descriptions. "I'm a driven person and I feel like I'm fairly intelligent, but I'm not educated at all. I didn't have much of a formal education. At the same time, I am a very sensitive person and I'm not a selfish person. I try to think about everybody else around me in my family and the people that work for me.

"Everybody thinks I'm so shy and protective of my whole life. I don't know that that is always true. . . . I'm a little shy around people I don't know and big crowds. I get real anxious, and it's mostly because I'm uncomfortable because I don't know what to talk about with people."

Jackson has maintained a low-key demeanor onstage, despite some early efforts to convince him to dance or abandon his guitar and walk around stage like Elvis Presley. For years, Jackson incorrectly thought Entertainer of the Year awards would elude him because "I just walk out there and sing."

"I've never been comfortable onstage because I never did like being in front of everybody," he said. "The guitar is something I felt like I could always hide behind. I'm not much of a dancer . . . As my girls have gotten older, if we see some young country guy looking all sexy and shaking around, they'll say, 'Daddy, I'm sure glad you don't do that.' "

Jackson, the son of a Newnan, Ga., mechanic, began working after school at 12 and entered the used car business after high school. He married at 21, moved to Nashville in his mid-20s and landed a record deal when he was nearly 30. He said it's this abundance of life experience that strengthens his songwriting.

"Since then, my life as a recording artist and celebrity, it's unreal. It's not normal after that. . . . I go to the grocery store about once a year. I lose touch with all the things that my fans are doing, everyday life things that they are just going through to get by. I'm totally out of touch with that, but at the same time, I think I had enough life experience that I can still stay grounded with that, I guess, and still have enough information there to continue to write songs that are simple and they can connect with."

'Just regular people'

Despite wealth and success, Jackson and his wife have faced some of the same relationship difficulties that have challenged other married couples. Denise Jackson candidly addressed them in her 2007 memoir, in which she revealed her insecurities, her lack of identity and details of the couple's brief separation a decade ago. With Jackson's permission, she revealed that he had been unfaithful.

"When she first brought the idea up about doing a book, I was a little anxious about what my fans might think," he said. "But at the same time, I felt like the direction she was going with it and what she had to say was good. I think it showed people that I'm not perfect — I'm a regular guy. We're just married people like anybody else.

"You grow up and learn from your mistakes, and if you want to make it work, you work hard at making it work."

While reading the book, he was moved to tears. "I told Denise, 'If they only read half the book, they are going to really hate me. You've got to get to the end of the book and then you might like me again.' I was proud of the job she did on it and the way it was written. I felt that some people may see something there that is of value. I'm really a good, nice guy down deep. But Denise and I, it was hard."

Jackson noted that today, fewer couples marry as young as they did, and some might not understand what it was like for the young lovers who resided in a small Georgia town. "People didn't leave that town. They would marry somebody and have kids. For us to marry that young and not really know what love was. You weren't grown up. You didn't have a chance to live. You had never been anywhere.

"For us to survive all that, and then to add this celebrity lifestyle for 20 years on top of that, it's a miracle we are here at all. It really is."

Now, not only is he supportive — he wrote the forward for her book and a song that accompanied it, and he also tagged along on her national media tour — but he is also doting.

"My friends brag to other women, 'He packs her picnics and puts hot water in her coffee cup in the morning.' If anything, since our separation, he's been the better spouse," Denise said. "He is the most attentive, the most caring, the most sensitive.

"He was the star. He could have left and had thousands of other choices, but he made the choice that most men don't make.

"He has been so brave and gracious to let me share that part of the story because it was important for people to know that was true and then see the process of forgiveness and rebuilding trust."

Nothing left to prove

As part of the famed Class of 1989 on Music Row, Jackson was among the young guns who helped usher in the unprecedented sales boom in country. Nearly two decades later, it's the next generation of artists, such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, who are garnering massive sales and media attention. When Underwood toured with Jackson, she told him, "You were my first concert when I was 5," which made him feel old. After all, it doesn't seem that long ago that he was the newcomer meeting his 50-something idol, George Jones.

Jackson said it's "pretty strange" to be middle age in country music.

"The funny thing is, when I would meet somebody who was older, they'd say, 'I don't feel that old.' I don't. I feel just like I did when I started. I'm older, and I can't read up close as good as I used to, but I still feel like the same young guy who was making records back in the early '90s.

"I turn 50 this year and I'm fine with it. I don't try to hide my age or anything. I feel like I'm lucky to have lived this long, considering some of the years I've been through," he said with a laugh.

With 31 No. 1 hits, worldwide sales of nearly 50 million and more Country Music Association award nominations than anyone else in history, Jackson no longer feels like he has anything to prove professionally.

"I feel like I've earned some respect as an artist, writer and singer," he said. "I've tried to maintain a level of integrity . . .

"I'm not a perfect guy for sure. Denise's book will tell you that. . . . I think I've grown up a lot . . . and learned how to be a good man. If I had to prove anything now, it would just be that."

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