Alan Jackson Looks Back on the Vivid Storytelling of His Biggest Songs: 'It Must Be a Gift From Heaven'

6/11/2018 by Cathy Applefeld Olson -

When it comes to deeply autobiographical storytelling that resonates with the masses, no singer-songwriter does it better than Alan Jackson. Whether it's the honky-tonk-styled “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” or his quietly evocative 9/11 tribute “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?,” Jackson tells Billboard he almost always “visualizes” his music, drawing from his own experiences. In the days leading up to his induction into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame on June 14, the keeper of 35 No. 1 country hits is still sharing his stories. (He recently wrote and recorded “You’ll Always be My Baby” for his youngest daughter, a strong contender to appear on his next album.) Below, Jackson looks back on some of his biggest hits -- and the surprising fan favorites.

Let’s start at the beginning with “Here in the Real World.” Did you have a sense that song would be your breakthrough hit?
No, never. I thought it was a great song, but no. The story is, it was one of the last songs we did in the session. We had started with a steel guitar intro in the studio, and the song just laid there and didn’t feel right. We were about to call it a day, and the song would never have made the album. I don’t remember who it was, maybe the producer, [but someone] said, "Let’s try it with the fiddle intro," and as soon as we got that fiddle intro, it turned into a hit. It just changed the whole feel of the song. That’s what happens sometimes: It just takes one little thing to make it work. I’ve worked on songs in the studio, and you know it’s a good song, but you just keep banging on it. It doesn’t feel right. And all of a sudden, we play it a little differently, [like] change what the bass line is playing, and it changes the whole personality of the song and makes it right.

What’s another song from early in your career that holds a particularly special place?
When my wife and I moved to Nashville, I was in my mid-20s. She and I had grown up in a small town in Georgia, and I hadn’t lived anywhere else and had hardly traveled anywhere out of the southeast. So when we moved here, it was a big move. My wife had a job that took her out of town a lot, so I was there by myself and didn’t know anybody. I was pretty lonesome and sad, and the first Mother’s Day was coming up. I wrote this song for my mama. It was one of the first songs I wrote in Nashville, and it’s called “Home.” It ended up on the first album, and later on the radio as a hit. It’s a true story about my mama and daddy, and the house they made their lives in and where we all grew up. And she lived there until last year, when she died.

My granddaddy had a little five-acre piece of land. He was a carpenter and farmer, and he broke off a half acre for each of his four children to have. My granddaddy had built this 12-by-12 tool shed, and when my mama and daddy got married, they rolled the tool shed on logs to their plot of land next door. That’s where they lived. They started adding on to it, when they had four daughters, and by the time I came along, the house was a lot bigger. But I still had to sleep in the hall until I was 10 years old, [when] my older sister went to college. And this song tells the story about them starting out in a tool shed and creating the house we would always call home.

Your storytelling is so vivid. Did you write poetry or short stories back in school?
It must just be a gift from heaven. I don’t know where it came from. I never wrote a song in my life until I was in my early 20s. In Georgia I had a little band, and we started out singing everybody else’s songs on the radio, just a bar band. But I finally decided I needed to go to Nashville, and there was one guy I knew from back home who played music. He lived in Atlanta and knew a little about the business, and he said, "Man, if you’re going to Nashville to try to be a singer, you need to come up with your own songs." So I started writing. I do remember in high school I wasn’t much of a student -- all I wanted to do was get out of school. But I remember in English literature class when we had to write short stories, my teacher always bragged about what I wrote and read it in front of the class, so maybe that was an early sign. I’m a real visual person. As I write and sing the songs now, I pretty much visualize the story. That may help, I don’t know.

Do you remember the name of your bar band?
Oh yeah. We were down in the basement at one of the boy’s house, and it was one of the first rehearsals. He worked as a carpenter and had tools and stuff sitting over there, and there was a baseboard box of nails called Dixie Steel Nails, so that was the name of our band.

You seem to have a bottomless source of stories to draw from.
I think it’s helped me, too, as a songwriter, that I didn’t got to college and had been working since I was 12, when I wasn’t in school. I did everything you can imagine, so by the time I moved to Nashville, I had already lived a lot of lives and had a lot to pull from. I think that helped. When I think back to the guys I’ve always loved, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and Willie Nelson and other great writers, most of them had lived a life really young, too, and back then you had to. By the time they were in their 20s, they had done a lot.