Alan Jackson’s career, like CMA fest, has soared

Alan Jackson’s career, like CMA fest, has soared

Alan Jackson still has the desk he signed autographs on at his first Fan Fair, back in 1990. It’s the front end of an old Ford truck, and the soft-spoken singer says it’s in an upstairs room at his house with all of his “junk and music stuff around it.”

“It was a big deal the first year,” Jackson recalls, seated in the lounge of his tour bus parked outside the Grand Ole Opry House. “It was amazing to see all of those people standing there for days to get that autograph.”

Both Jackson, who lives just outside of Nashville, and Fan Fair have undergone significant changes in the past two decades.

Fan Fair was renamed CMA Music Festival in 2003, moved from its home at the fairgrounds to downtown Nashville in 2004 and last year catered to more than 65,000 country music fans, with participation from more than 400 artists and celebrities.

Jackson’s career has followed the same upward trend. Since the singer’s first hit at country radio in 1989, the Newnan, Ga., native went on to earn 46 No. 1 songs and sell 50 million albums — quite a feat for a man whose childhood home started out as a tool shed with no running water.

“You never know the scope of what someone’s career is going to do,” says Jackson’s longtime producer, Keith Stegall. “When an artist and their music moves me, when the hair raises up on the back of your neck, you know there’s something special.”

Jackson’s new album, Thirty Miles West, which is in stores today, makes Stegall’s hair stand up.

“This is the album we dreamed he’d deliver when we signed Alan last year,” says Cindy Mabe, senior vice president of marketing at Capitol Records Nashville. “It’s one of his most personal journeys he’s ever sang about.”

The lead single, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” is co-written by Jackson’s nephew Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, and the singer says it’s “one of the best heartache songs I’ve heard in a long time.”

Fans will likely hear the song live when Jackson plays CMA Music Festival during the closing concert Sunday night at LP Field.

“It’s amazing to see that crowd out there. … You still walk out there and see that and think, ‘How in the world did I get here?’ ” he says. “It’s amazing, you know, just from where I came from to be standing in Nashville at something like that.”

Writing about life

Jackson’s journey to the top professionally wasn’t always a smooth one personally. He met wife Denise as a teenager after he flipped a penny down her shirt at a Dairy Queen and asked if he could retrieve it. Then he hid in her back seat and surprised her as she drove home that night.

“I remember screaming and pulling over,” Denise told GAC for an episode of Backstory dedicated to her husband. “When I got my breath a little bit, we rode around and talked, and the relationship started from there.”

The couple wed in 1979, moved to Nashville several years later and, after three daughters and 18 years of marriage, endured a separation in 1998 at the peak of Jackson’s career, sparked by the singer’s infidelity. They reconciled a few months later.

But that was nothing compared with the news the couple got in late 2010 that Jackson says made him “sad and mad” and was the impetus for the “hardest song I’ve ever cut in the studio.”

Denise had cancer. And, as Jackson did when his father died and he wrote “Drive” and after the Sept. 11 attacks when he penned “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” he dealt with the worry and grief by writing a song. “When I Saw You Leaving (for Nisey)” is the last track on Thirty Miles West.

“It was just days after we got the word (that the song) started coming out of there,” Jackson recalls. “I never played it for her or anybody. Then we went in the studio, and I wanted it to be on the record for her. I told (the band) what it was about and everybody got so choked up, we couldn’t hardly get through the thing to get it on tape.”

Jackson says he’s proud that the song is subtle and that people will have to really pay attention to know what it’s about. He describes the period after her diagnosis with colorectal cancer, in which she underwent months of radiation and chemotherapy, as a “tough time.”

“Denise and I, we go so far back,” he says. “We started out as children and we were dating at 16 and 17, and I pretty much took care of her from that point on. I bought her a car and paid for her college, and that was before we were married. Then when it got to (fighting the cancer), there wasn’t a thing I could do.”

Denise’s cancer treatments were finished a year ago, and today she is cancer free, but Jackson says he knows her health is now a worry that constantly rests on her shoulders.

But Denise told GAC that there were blessings in the struggle.

“Once you get that phone call and you hear that word ‘cancer,’ I will never live another day in my life and expect anything,” she says. “For my children to see my faith really acted out again in a situation like this, I think it had a profound impact on them.”

Looking to future

While much more lighthearted, there’s also a song on the album for the couple’s daughters: Mattie, who just graduated from college; Ali, who just graduated from high school; and Dani, who just finished her freshman year of high school. “Her Life’s a Song” was inspired by how the girls and their friends walk around listening to wide varieties of music on their iPods.

“The girls are always making me write about something,” he laughs. “I see all their friends coming over, and one song will be some real country thing you wouldn’t expect they’d like, and another would be some hip-hop thing where I have to fuss at ’em because the lyrics are nasty.”

With the worst behind them, the couple are now focused on their future. For them, that means downsizing. Jackson explains that their youngest will go off to college in three years, and then, he says, he and Denise will figure out where they want to spend most of their time.

In preparation, they sold the Williamson County farm where their daughters grew up in favor of a smaller house, and they’ve put their Center Hill lake home and Florida home up for sale.

“Things kind of got all revisited after Denise went through this,” Jackson says. “I think Denise and I just decided we just didn’t want all that anymore.”

The singer also noticed that with his daughters getting older, they didn’t want to spend vacations with their family at the lake or at the same house on the beach. And in his opinion, if they don’t use it as a family, “it’s not worth having.”

“When they are all gone and we are by ourselves, we’ll figure out where we want to be,” he says.

Contact Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227 or [email protected].

About the songs

Alan Jackson co-wrote six of the 13 songs on his new album, Thirty Miles West, a ratio he calls typical for one of his albums.

“We’re just looking for good songs, and I’m trying to write stuff, and we finally get to a point where we can … see which ones work,” he says. “We were just trying to make a great album, and … everyone who has heard it has been real nice about it.” Here are a few of his favorites from the album:

“Gonna Come Back as a Country Song” (written by Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride) — “I loved that song, and it’s just perfect for me, because if I die, and I get to come back as something, I want to come back as a country song.”

“Dixie Highway” (Alan Jackson) — “It’s a fun, growing-up-in-the-South song, and Zac Brown is singing on it with me ’cause he’s from Georgia. I think we both have a lot of respect for each other. They are great players and writers, and Zac has a great unique voice, and he’s just a nice fellow, too. And I think he feels the same way about me.”

“You Go Your Way” (Troy Jones, Tony Lane, David Lee ) — “It’s a little sleeper on there; you have to hear it two or three times and then you can’t get it out of your head. It sounds like a single. You go your way and I’ll go crazy.”

“Look Her in the Eye and Lie” (Alan Jackson) — “I don’t know where I got that. I think I heard it on the TV thing or something. Same ol’ story where you run into your ex somewhere and you don’t want to let them know you’re sad, so you act like you don’t care.”

— Cindy Watts, The Tennessean