Alan Jackson: Back to Church

Alan Jackson returns to the gospel songs he loved as a child with Precious Memories Volume II.
Deborah Evans Price/Country Weekly

Originally published as the cover story for our April 1, 2013 issue.

Life experience has a way of lending emotional weight to the songs of our youth. Just ask Alan Jackson. The Newnan, Ga., native has come a long way from the young boy squirming in the church pew on Sunday morning, tentatively singing hymns alongside his parents and sisters. Today, he’s a multiplatinum star who has helped raise three daughters and held his wife Denise’s hand as she battled cancer, and those songs of faith have never been more precious.

 Alan once again pays tribute to those classics that provided the foundation for his early days on Precious Memories Volume II, a collection of traditional hymns released on ACR/EMI Records Nashville that follows the double-platinum-selling first volume released in 2006. The original project was recorded as a Christmas gift for Alan’s mother and was never intended to be released as a commercial recording. However, when one of the record executives at Alan’s label heard the project, he coaxed him into sharing it with the world.

“I was definitely surprised,” Alan says of the album’s success. “Denise kept telling me back then, ‘If you do these old hymns and do them like people remembered them in church, people are going to buy that thing.’ I said, ‘OK,’ but we didn’t make the album with the intention of going out selling a bunch of albums. It was just an honest effort to do something sweet for our mothers, and I think that was a part of the feel of it. It was just a sweet, honest, simple production and rendition of them. That’s what we tried to do again.”

Produced by Alan’s longtime friend and producer Keith Stegall, Precious Memories Volume II opens with Alan’s stunningly beautiful version of “Amazing Grace” and features such timeless gems as “Just As I Am,” “Love Lifted Me,” “There Is Power in the Blood,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” and “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go.”

Sitting in his bus parked outside Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium on a sunny Friday afternoon, Alan is preparing to shoot videos for “Amazing Grace” and “Precious Memories.” When asked about the concept for the music videos, Alan just smiles. “There ain’t no concept. We’re just up there singing it,” he says of the two performance clips. “We’re not trying to make no big music video.”

The first volume of Precious Memories was accompanied by a live concert video/DVD that was filmed at the Ryman. Though it was successful, Alan was hesitant to do another one. “The [record] label wanted me to do another TV show and I said no,” Alan says. “I didn’t want it to look like we’re just going to do another album because the other one sold so much. I didn’t want it to look like we were out promoting this thing for that reason, so I just didn’t feel comfortable about doing all that again. I just thought we needed to make the music.”

 In deciding which songs to include on this latest volume, Alan says he and Denise picked up an old Baptist hymnal and began leafing through it. “We went through it just like last time when we did that first album,” he says. “We had so many [songs] on that first list that we had to leave out, some of those ended up on here. We just sat down and went through it, made a list and then really had a hard time narrowing it down again from that. We just had so many songs, but we just went through and figured out which ones that would work together.”

“Amazing Grace” is one of the highlights of the album, but Alan says he was initially hesitant to record it. “I didn’t really want to do that one because I felt like it’s been done a lot,” he shares. “Denise said, ‘I love that song! I want you to do it on this one,’ and after I did it, it’s one of my favorites on there. I was glad we did it.”

In shooting a video for “Amazing Grace,” Alan felt the stage of the Ryman was the perfect place. “Every time I’ve sung here, whether it’s gospel music or my regular stuff in the Ryman, you can’t help but think about all that history,” he says of the famed venue, which was originally built as a church by riverboat captain Thomas Ryman as a place for Samuel Jones to preach. Captain Ryman had become a Christian at one of Sam’s tent revivals.

The Ryman was also home to the Grand Ole Opry for many years before it moved to the new Opry House in 1974. The Opry still returns to the Ryman for performances during most of the winter months. “If you know about it, and are a fan of the history and the roots of country music, that’s an important piece of where country music came from,” says Alan, “so it always is a different feeling there. It does feel like a church.”

Church has always played an important role in Alan’s life; although as a young boy, he admits it wasn’t always his favorite place to be. “I didn’t really want to go, but [my parents] made my sisters and I go every Sunday morning,” he says with a smile. “I remember them dropping us off at Sunday school and then they’d come back for church. Like any kid, I was just sitting there squirming, ready to get out.”

Even as an impatient child, the music always spoke to him. “I remember the music, that big old pipe organ. I’ve just always loved that sound. There’s something magical about that,” he says. “As I got a little older, I did sing in the children’s choir, but I was always so shy. I didn’t like being up there, and then as a teenager later on I ended up in the choir singing some. I guess that’s probably some of the first solo stuff I’d ever did.”

Over the years, he and Denise have made church part of their family life with daughters Mattie, Ali and Dani, even though his touring cuts into his time at home on weekends. “My schedule ain’t normal, so half the time I was gone—especially the first 10 years—on weekends. Denise has taken them more and I go some,” he says. “We go to a Baptist church and they have full bands in there. They play a lot of the new Christian music. A lot of it is good music, and they’ll still throw in an old hymn every now and then, but I miss those old hymns and that organ.”

Faith has always been an important part of the Jackson household and was an anchor in their lives two years ago as Denise battled colorectal cancer. With her illness behind her, these are sweet days for Alan and his family. “Her last checkup was here recently and everything is still looking good,” he says. “They just have to keep an eye on it.”

Going through the ordeal with Denise made Alan appreciate and respect his beloved wife even more than ever. In years past, he says if someone asked the most influential person in his life, he would have said it was his father, but that has changed. “He was such a quiet man, but the older I get I realize how important just the type of person he was and how rare that was,” he says. “But now that I’ve lived with Denise all these years and have seen her go through so much, survive so much, I have to put her up there at the top.”  

Leaning back on a brown sofa, surrounded by the bus interior’s warm wood trim, Alan adjusts his baseball cap and smiles warmly when the conversation turns to his daughters. “Mattie graduated a year ago and wanted to get out of Nashville,” he says. “She picked Austin, which is right up her alley. It’s a great town. She’s into a lot of healthy food and running and all the young people’s things that they have there. Ali is in her first year in college at Auburn, and Dani is in the middle of high school. Dani will be 16 in August, then I’ll have them all behind the wheel.”

Faith, family and music have always been intertwined for Alan Jackson, and so it goes as he continues to make music, enjoy his wife and daughters and create even more precious memories.