Alan Jackson has written and sung some affecting songs in his career, but none compare with his latest, the Sept. 11-inspired “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”
“It was overwhelming for me,” Jackson says of the reaction that came after he performed the song for the first time Nov. 7 on the Country Music Association’s annual awards show, broadcast by CBS.
This week, “Where Were You” notched its fifth week at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, a personal record for Jackson. “Chattahoochee” stayed at No. 1 for four weeks in 1993. “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” was at No. 1 for three weeks in 1991.
“I’ve had a lot of success and written a lot of songs and had a lot of comments and praise over the years,” Jackson conceded in a recent interview. “I’m used to it, and I don’t feel like I’m affected by it that much, but it was scary for me for a couple of days. … It made me feel a little weird in a good way. I couldn’t handle it all for a while, but then it kinda leveled off. I never expected it to be received like it was, but it was a good feeling.”
Preachers have quoted the song in sermons. High school religion teachers have played it for their classes. A Georgia legislator read it into the Congressional Record. With the release of his 11th album, Drive, on Tuesday (Jan. 15), Jackson made the song available for sale to the public for the first time.
In one sense, “Where Were You” almost didn’t get written –- and once it was written, Jackson had second thoughts about releasing it. “I just didn’t know if it was something I really wanted to put out,” he recalled. “I was just so reluctant about [appearing to take] advantage of a tragedy. I didn’t want it to look like that.”
On the blue-sky morning of Sept. 11, Jackson was getting his exercise by walking on a track at his home in Franklin, Tenn., outside Nashville. When he came back in the house, he saw the coverage of the unfolding tragedy on television. Like the rest of the nation, he was deeply affected.
“I was just devastated. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I felt like what I did for a living was not worthwhile,” Jackson admitted, chuckling quietly at the memory. “I literally was just depressed for a couple of weeks at least.”
Inspiration struck in the middle of an October night, while he lay in bed. “I literally woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Jackson said. “The chorus and the melody and pretty much all the lyrics that are on the record are exactly the way they came to me in the bed.”
Jackson got up, went downstairs and whispered the song into a digital recorder he had gotten two months before. “I didn’t even pick up the guitar,” he said. “I just sang it in there and went back to bed. I got up the next morning, and Denise and the girls went to Sunday School and I sat in here at this study and I just started.”
As he does with all his most personal work, when he finished the song, Jackson played it first for his wife, Denise, then for his producer, Keith Stegall.
“He said, ‘Man, you need to record this.’”
So Jackson did. When he finished cutting the song, Stegall had another bit of advice. “Keith said, ‘You know what, you need to call your record label over here to hear this.’” Manager Nancy Russell summoned Arista Nashville staffers to the studio “and everybody was just stunned,” Jackson recalled.
“They called the CMA and [CMA staffers] did the same thing. They said we’ve got to play it [on the show]. It’s five minutes long, and they didn’t even ask me to change anything,” recalled the man who stood up for George Jones when the CMA wanted to force the Possum to shorten “Choices” on its 1999 awards show.
“Where Were You” gets its power from the images Jackson strings together — of black smoke rising against the blue sky; of survivors walking out of the rubble; of a family in their own yard; of a classroom of innocent children; of the raw emotions that prompted people to call their mothers or read their Bibles.
The chorus ends with a paraphrase from the first book of Corinthians: “Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us/And the greatest is love.”
“When we got married, that was part of our vows, and Denise had it inscribed on the inside of our wedding ring,” Jackson explained. The couple celebrated their 23rd anniversary on Dec. 15.
Echoing the values of “Where Were You,” the other songs on Drive come from a man fully committed to love, home and family. Jackson wrote eight of the 12 songs by himself -– uncommon in Nashville, where co-writing is the rule –- and penned a ninth, “Bring on the Night,” with Stegall and Charlie Craig.
The breezy title track, “Drive (for Daddy Gene),” with its images of boats, pickup trucks and jeeps, pays tribute to Jackson’s father, who died Jan. 31, 2000. “I’d tried to write a song or two and nothing worked,” Jackson confessed. “It was always some sad, dying song. I didn’t want to write that about him. He liked up-tempo stuff. That song was a personal song. I finally got something I liked.”
On “First Love,” Jackson sings about an older woman, his first love, that turns out to be the ’55 Thunderbird he bought when he was 15. He sold it in 1979 to finance a house, then got it back when Denise tracked it down and gave it to him as a Christmas present in 1993.
The humorous “Work in Progress,” catalogs Jackson’s matrimonial shortcomings. The romantic “Once in a Lifetime Love” offers a different viewpoint.
“We survived a lot of ups and downs and crazy transitions in our lives,” Jackson said of his marriage to Denise. “Sometimes it takes a while, or events, to cause you to realize [what you’ve got].”
“Designated Drinker” pairs Jackson with George Strait on a honky-tonk song. The two were spotted last at the scene of their award-winning pairing, “Murder on Music Row.”
“I was glad to finally get it on tape,” Jackson admitted about the song, which caused him fits in the writing. “Strait liked the song. It’s a tough subject to write about without offending some people out there. It took a while to get it figured out.”
“Where Were You” is the masterwork in a creative period that finds Jackson turning out quality compositions at an impressive rate. After years of working to establish himself, weathering the tough times in his marriage and getting his house built, Jackson feels more relaxed and “leveled out.”
“I think now, everything’s in place,” he said. “We’re very comfortable, it feel likes home here, the children are great and my whole life’s more of a routine. Then you’ve got things like my daddy dying and Sept. 11, things that cause you to write songs.”