June 01, 2004

ALAN JACKSON

BY MAURICE MINER

All-American Songwriter





"I'm just a writer of simple songs." In the fall of 2001, Alan Jackson wrote and sang those lyrics in "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" -- typically humble words from an unassuming man who ranks as one of country music's biggest stars. But those "simple songs" have made Alan Jackson one of the top names in his genre for the bulk of the 15 years that have passed since he arrived on the scene. And what may be even more impressive -- he's done it without compromising the artistry, style and love of tradition that drew him to Nashville in the first place. "I didn't intend to get on a soapbox for country music or traditional music -- that's just what I like."

Alan has become a true force in the industry, a formidable talent embodied in an admittedly shy man. In a steady stream of platinum and multi-platinum releases, he's sold more than 40 million albums and taken 24 of those "simple songs" to number-one. "It's been healthy for me to have a career that just kind of has grown and kept going," he says. "If I'd jumped up there and sold 50 million albums and been too successful, it'd have been hard to follow that. I think it's good for me that it's happened this way�and surprising, too."

Surprising? Maybe. The fates certainly weren't stacked in favor of a lanky Georgian whose closest connection to Music City was his wife's chance encounter with Glen Campbell and an encouraging word from the veteran entertainer. But when Randy Travis' career took off just as Alan arrived in Nashville, he knew his sound stood a chance. With songs like "Here in the Real World" and "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" -- classic stylings rooted in his own life experience -- Alan was on his way.

When "Where Were You" came along three years ago, capturing the nation's collective trauma in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, Alan had already been at the top of his game for a decade. But 10 years in, Alan experienced a creative and commercial resurgence. "I was floored by it, the response that came in from fans and strangers." They weren't the only ones who responded -- the song earned Alan his first Grammy, a Song of the Year award.

Whether he's onstage, in the studio and being crowned the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year (a title he's won three times, including the last two years), songwriting has always provided the foundation for Alan's career. And the world around him remains his best source -- the inspiration may be his wife, Denise, and their three daughters�a childhood flashback�or a phrase glimpsed on a roadside billboard.

Songwriting is a craft and Alan is a master craftsman. He creates unencumbered designs with clean lines out of melody and words, not metal and wood. He's a three-time ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year Award winner (1993, 1994 and 1998). “Chattahoochee” was also named ASCAP's Country Song of the Year in 1994, as was "Don't Rock the Jukebox" in 1992. And Alan's winning ways continue in the millennium -- he was the 2003 and 2002 ASCAP Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year and, in the last two years, has seen six of his compositions rank among the year's most-performed songs.

What makes Alan's music resonate with country music lovers is its reflection of real people and scenarios -- the elements behind country music's most enduring songs. But how does a man who collects vintage automobiles keep sight of that reality? "I go out and play on the road. Other than that, I'm pretty much at home doing regular things to stay in touch with the real working class, where I come from."

This fall, Alan will release his 15th album (counting greatest hits and Christmas collections). He's created his own label, an imprint for new acts and his own special projects, distributed through BMG's RCA Label Group in Nashville. He recently sat down to talk about the new disc, the new venture and much more.

It hardly seems possible that you've been in Nashville almost 20 years...and on the charts for more than a decade -- long enough for new artists to start listing you among their influences. You've said, in talking about some of your influences, that you hope you still have stories to tell 40 years into this. You don't really worry about that, do you?

I don't know if my life's been that interesting, you know? I've been pretty lucky. You never know what life's gonna bring you. I've got a long way to go, you know? You just have to wait and see, I guess.

Well, you are the same man who wrote "Home" and "Drive" -- those songs originated from real life memories.

Well, that's true.

Do you still find that, as a rule of thumb -- whether it's your own life or life around you -- that that's the place to look for inspiration?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I've written some songs in the past that I liked or thought were good songs. Some hook that came out of nowhere. But I think it’s hard to write real genuine feelings or put it into words where people can relate to it unless it's something you've really lived or witnessed close. I don't know -- I don't really think about it that much to be honest with you. I just write what I like or what I feel or whatever happens to be there at the minute. And some of it works and some of it doesn't but, obviously, some of my more successful songs that seem to reach people more personally have been songs that I wrote from my personal life. So a lot of people relate to them even though they're my story. Even back to “Chattahoochee.” You know, people still tell me, 'Man, that reminds me of when I was growin' up.' But I didn't know! I thought, 'Who in the world's gonna relate to “Chattahoochee!”

Are you always writing, always jotting things down? Or do you set aside "writing time"?

I've got a list a mile long of stuff I haven't written. Just ideas that I've had for years. I got me a little digital thing a year or two ago. A little recorder that's small. Pencil-size almost. And that's helped me more than anything because melodies are what I'd lose. I'd think of a melody and I wouldn't have a guitar around or any way to remember it. An hour later, it'd just be gone! Now that I can put those melodies down, that really helps me if I'm somewhere weird where I can't get a guitar or something.

So if we see Alan Jackson talking to a pencil, we shouldn't worry.

Yeah! That's right -- I'm always tryin' to look for ideas or listen for them or feel for them or whatever.

Do you find yourself doing more writing alone these days? You seemed to have more co-writes on some of your earlier albums.

It's not that I don't like writing with people or anything. For the first few years, I was on Music Row most of the time prior to my recording career. A lot of those co-writes were when I was down on the Row everyday. We were writing songs and I was building up a little catalog. And I never got any cuts with them, so I ended up cutting them myself. And then when I hit the road, I was gone so much that I very seldom was back in town to write. And so, it kind of just 'dissolved' almost. And then I just ended up writing on the road when I was by myself. It just kinda got to where that's what I've been doing lately. But unless I know somebody, I have a hard time kind of relaxing and opening up to people...so it takes me a while to feel like I could really write with somebody, I guess. And I'm still cutting some stuff -- I did a song for this new album that Don Sampson and I wrote probably in 1987. I've had in the back of my mind. I pulled it out and said, 'You know, I ought to put that on this album.' It just never made it for whatever reason, and there it is now.

Speaking of the new album -- you've always mixed your own songs with other writers' material. Is that the case as this project comes together?

Yeah. We've cut 13 things and, sort of like my other albums, I've written just half or a little more than half.

You mention opening up and being comfortable with someone in a professional situation. You and [producer] Keith Stegall certainly have that kind of a relationship -- a partnership dating back to the beginning of your career. Why do you think your pairing still works?

It goes way back. When I first met Keith, he was different than other people that were trying to produce me. I had done a couple of demo things with some other guys, and it just never worked. Keith was an artist and a songwriter and he'd been in music all his life. His background was similar to mine -- southern guy, grew up in a small town. And we just kind of connected personally. He was real comfortable to work with because he let me be what I wanted to be. He let me cut my own songs the way I wanted to do them. And supported me with knowledge and inspiration. He doesn't try to make me do anything that I don't want to do -- and never has. He let's you sing and doesn't take all the soul out of you. I've recorded some of his songs and we've written stuff together. And it keeps working. So you know what they say: dance with the one that brung you!

Jackson with Golden Note Award Alan Jackson was honored with ASCAP’s Golden Note Award in 2002.

Another partnership that continues to work for you is your relationship with ASCAP.

Yeah. They were one of the first organizations that I talked to when I came to town. Shelby Kennedy [then Nashville Director of Membership Relations] kind of introduced me around and got me hooked up with some of the songwriters that I created some of those hits with in the early days. And they've always been really supportive of me, even back when I didn't have a record deal or didn't look like I was going to get one for a while, so I've always appreciated their interest.

You've recently created your own record label and have already signed your first act, The Wrights. Are you expanding your horizons and becoming a label executive?

(Laughs) Well, yeah, I guess so! When we did my last Christmas album [2002's Let It Be Christmas], I made my own record label and launched it. And Joe Galante let me do a joint venture with him through RCA and Arista, so all of my special projects like Christmas albums and things will go on there. And so, as the label, I can sign other acts, too. I wasn't necessarily wanting to go out and start a big label or anything, but my nephew, Adam Wright, and his wife Shannon had been playing music and writing songs and singing all their lives. And they've looked to me for advice from time to time. They were in the Atlanta area for years and they wanted to do something up here, so I said, 'Man, move up here to Nashville and try to get into the business!' So they came up here and started writing and playing around at clubs and started creating a little interest. At the point where they were going to end up getting an offer somewhere, they were real nervous about the record business and everything. I said, 'Look, I can put you on my label. You can cut it however you want to and do what you want to do and then it'll be distributed through a major.' And that's what we're doing. They wrote everything on the album. They sing, both of them play -- they're musicians. Their stuff turned out really cool. It's really different with a lot of original songwriting. I think it’s going to be a breath of fresh air with a male-female duo out there. I'm really excited about it. It may be a few months before we can have anything going on it, but I feel like it's got a good shot. And ASCAP has been real supportive of Adam and Shannon. They helped them hook up with songwriters as well.

It sounds like you're a genuine fan -- regardless of the family connection.

I like to see somebody that's real talented, who's played the clubs for years and can really sing and play an instrument. Adam was in my wedding as a ringbearer when he was about four-years-old. He was playing piano and guitar when he was a kid. That's all he's even done is play music, and that's what he wants to do. He's a real talented guy.

There are several different aspects to your career -- you're in the studio, you're onstage. Is writing the most important part of what you do?

Well, you know, they're all different. Like you say, there are different aspects of your career, and they all bring different rewards or feelings to you. I've always enjoyed making the records because it's fun just to make something new. But the songwriting is very fulfilling when somebody likes your songs, or it touches somebody like “Remember When.” I've had so many comments about that like “Oh, my wife cried when she heard that.” It makes you feel good that people really are affected by it in a good or helpful way. And I've been lucky with it. But, performing is a whole other side of it. And that's the same thing: you walk out there and you get appreciation for your songs or your singing. But songwriting is definitely the most creative part of it. And I'm a pretty creative person, I think, outside of writing. I'm just that way. I'm always trying to do something! I'm a little bit crazy.

A couple of years ago, ASCAP created the Songwriter/Artist Award, a separate honor from the longstanding Writer of the Year award. You supported that change. Why do you think it is important to recognize both?

At the songwriting awards, most of those people are songwriters. That's the way they make their living and that's how they get their recognition. After I won it a couple times, I felt bad. I felt like it was a little unfair because being an artist, I had a source for my songs. I can cut my own stuff if I want to. When I'm recording an album, I always try to look at the songs, try not to be biased and I try to cut the best material, not just because I wrote it. But they needed to split it up for songwriters that aren't performing artists so they'd get their recognition, too.

I'm sure you're frequently asked what kind of advice you'd give to an aspiring country music star?' But what advice do you offer to aspiring songwriters? What would you suggest they do or keep in mind?

I started writing when I was in my mid-20s, before I moved to Nashville, just because somebody told me I needed some original material. And I'd never even thought about writing or studied songwriting by listening to other people's stuff, trying to figure out how they write. I think you have to have some natural ability, some natural sense of rhyme or rhythm or the melody. But I've always kept it real simple and tried to write in a way that would be like you were just speaking. I hate when they use so many clichés in each song. It just drives me crazy. And I’m not real particular about my rhymes, and I don't study rhyming patterns. I don't know all those things. I just write what I feel. And I think that's my advice -- write what you feel and how you want to write it. You don't have to follow any trends or any rules or anything. I think more unique songs come out of people who write that way. That's what I would do.

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