“Just tryin’ to be somebody, wanna be heard and seen.”
It hardly seems possible, but it has been 10 years since Alan Jackson, the tall honky-tonk singer from tiny Newnan, Ga., quietly stepped up to the microphone to record his first album. Fate could not have smiled more benevolently on his timing; released hot on the heels of Garth Brooks’ self-titled debut and Clint Black’s premiere, Killin’ Time, Jackson’s Here in the Real World became an instant hit, with six of its 10 cuts burning up the charts. While Garth, Clint, Vince Gill and others had begun to shake the walls of country convention by making music that appealed to a broader, younger audience, Alan Jackson, CMT’s November Showcase Artist emerged just behind them to take his own place and pave the way for acts like Brooks and Dunn, Trisha Yearwood and Tim McGraw. As the market and music began to diversify, Jackson’s hard-core, straight-ahead traditional approach to country music hit home with those fans who wanted their music to stay close to its roots. Now, with the release of his ninth album, Under the Influence, Alan has taken one step closer to his musical influences. The project is a collection of country classics by artists such as Gene Watson (“Farewell Party”), Merle Haggard (“The Way I Am”) and Hank Williams Jr. (“The Blues Man”).
Of course, in the decade since Alan Jackson first appeared on country’s main stage, the tides of country music have ebbed and flowed, weathering changes and popular trends. In the midst of the storm, Jackson has calmly managed to face the demands of popularity while remaining steadfast to the music that made him a star. Banking on the fact that traditional country can still be fresh, he’s built a career on delighting audiences with hits like “Wanted,” “I’d Love You All Over Again,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Love’s Got a Hold on You.” He’s won every award imaginable (including the prestigious CMA Entertainer of the Year), charted 26 No. 1 singles and had sales in excess of 27 million records. Not bad for a man who once sold cars by day and played the bars by night and was turned down by every record label in Nashville (most of them twice, he reports). But, as it is for so many artists, the ride to the top was sometimes bumpy, and there were many times when Alan wasn’t sure he’d get there at all.
“Son, I just know I’m gonna hear you singin’ on it someday.”
As did many American families of the day, the Jacksons got their country music via shows like Hee Haw and The Johnny Cash Show. One night while watching Hee Haw, Alan’s father first encouraged his son to try his hand at music.
“Hee Haw was probably the earliest I remember being affected by real country music,” he reports in a recent interview with CMT Showcase. (Episodes to be telecast Fridays, Nov. 5, 12, 19 and 26; 11:30 p.m. – Midnight, ET; repeats Saturdays from 12:30 – 1 p.m., ET; Sundays at 7:30 – 8 p.m., ET; and Tuesdays from 10 – 10:30 a.m., ET and 10 -10:30 p.m., ET). “My daddy watched that show religiously, every week. My daddy doesn’t say much, but I remember once when Buck Owens was playing, he said to me, ‘You ought to be one of those singers.’ I don’t know why that struck me, but it did.”
After learning to play the guitar, Jackson spent his teenage and young adult years in a variety of bands and duets, playing the usual starving musician’s circuit of private parties, pizza parlors and beer joints. Barely making enough to break even, Alan eventually decided it was time to make the move to Nashville. He’d begun writing on his own and had even laid down a few tracks (“Not that I’d play those for anybody today,” he laughs). It was the mid-1980s, and in the Urban Cowboy era of country music, Jackson felt like something was missing, something that maybe he could offer.
“There weren’t a lot of new artists doing real traditional stuff that I liked, or that people I knew liked,” he says. “That’s one reason why I wanted to do it. And then Randy (Travis) hit right when I came to Nashville and kind of opened the door for a lot of people.” (Eventually, Jackson and Travis ended up as collaborators, co-penning hits like Travis’ “Better Class of Losers” and Jackson’s “She’s Got the Rhythm.”)
“I made it up to Music Row, Lordy don’t the wheels turn slow…”
Once he made the move to Nashville, things gradually began heating up for Alan. He landed a job in the mailroom at TNN, which is located next to the Grand Ole Opry House. Taking the opportunity to soak up his environment, he sneaked backstage during rehearsals for the Country Music Association Awards, coming face to face with some of his idols for the first time.
“I was walking through there, and I’d run into Hank Jr., and George Strait and all these other people I admired. It was pretty wild,” he remembers. (It was in 1991 when Randy Travis and Roy Acuff inducted Jackson into the Opry as one of its cast members.)
Despite his daily proximity to the music he loved, Alan nonetheless continued to struggle with his music career. He hired a band and started playing out of town gigs wherever he could. He turned down a shady recording contract and staged showcases for record label representatives who never showed up. The cold reality of the music business sometimes discouraged him, but he doggedly plowed on. Finally, Clive Davis’ Arista Records decided to open a Nashville office, and they invited Jackson to be the first artist on their country roster. Alan knew it was a big risk.
“I was nervous about Arista when they gave me a real offer, because they were brand new. But they were very determined, and (label head) Tim DuBois had a lot of good vision. He’s a creative person and has had a lot of success as a songwriter himself. So I felt real comfortable with them.”
“But I wouldn’t change a minute, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The marriage between Alan and Arista has been a fruitful one for both artist and label. Under the Influence reinforces that Jackson is contemporary country’s traditional stalwart, a crown he wears a little less comfortably than his familiar white cowboy hat.
“I guess sometimes I feel a little weird about my music being traditional as compared to what I hear a lot on the radio today,” he notes. “Recently a lot of people have been saying, ‘Boy, you’re carrying the torch for traditional country,’ and I’m just doing what I’ve always done. I’m glad they’re still letting a little bit of that music get out there.
“I’ve never been the type to think that just ’cause I do hard-core country, I think that everybody on the radio needs to sound like Merle Haggard and George Jones or Tammy Wynette. I think it’s always been real diverse and that’s what it should be. I’m a fan of any kind of music, if it’s a good example of that music.”
In the end, music historians will look back on the 1990s and point to Alan Jackson as one of the decade’s major influences on country music, a neo-traditionalist who brought the roots of country to the mainstream without minimizing or diluting them. It was a long and often difficult struggle to the top, but Jackson concedes that it’s been worth it.
“In the early days, some told me that they didn’t think I had star potential, and I needed to go back to Georgia,” he says. “Some of it hurt, and some of it made me mad and more determined, I guess. I’ve learned that I was coming down a lot of dead-end paths in the music business, but I realize now that if they had not been there, I probably wouldn’t be here. I feel like all of that heartache and disappointment gave me time to grow and write, so it probably was the right path, you know.”