“It’s 50 times better than that first million, I guess,” Alan Jackson quipped when a reporter asked him how it felt to have sold 50 million albums.
The tall, laconic superstar spoke to the press Wednesday (Aug. 13) at Vanderbilt University’s Student Life Center in Nashville just before a party got underway to herald his Olympian achievement.
Approximately 350 guests attended the celebration in the cavernous ballroom. Among those were Trace Adkins, who will tour with Jackson this fall, Grand Ole Opry stars Jack Greene and Jimmy C. Newman, Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis, songwriters Harley Allen, Tim Nichols and Roger Murrah and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.
The focal point at the party (at least when Jackson wasn’t in the room) was a row of six large (and dripping) ice blocks into which were imbedded LP-size reproductions of Jackson’s album covers.
The blocks loomed high above a platform wreathed with trays of hors d’oeuvres. A few yards away, another food station offered stemmed glasses of pan-heated grits with an array of toppings, ranging from hot peppers to shrimp.
There were two full-service bars, both in heavy use and one of which was shaped and painted like a guitar. To keep the mood properly down-home, uniformed waitress circulated through the crowd, bearing trays of fancy triangular sandwiches — made of white bread, bologna and American cheese, each with a pickle slice toothpicked on the top.
Jackson seemed ill at ease talking about his sales numbers. “I still go back to the music,” he told the reporters. “That’s the part of the business that I like best.” He said it felt good to know that one of his CDs might be playing in a truck in Montana or being downloaded to an iPod in New Jersey.
In many ways, he said, he’s still pretty much the shy guy he was when he started. He recalled auditioning a drummer for his band during those early days. Years later, he said, the drummer remarked that Jackson had been so shy during the audition that he wouldn’t make eye contact with him.
Jackson vowed that the celebration of his massive sales wouldn’t send him on a shopping spree.
“I’ve kind of burned out [on buying things],” he said. “I’ve owned so much stuff. … Even before I moved to Nashville, I probably owned four or five hundred cars, boats and motorcycles. … I’ve had the Ferraris and the Porsches, and I’m over that now. I drive an old Ford truck.”
Despite his successes, Jackson said he still didn’t see himself as an equal among such musical heroes as George Jones, Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard.
“That’s a whole different level of magic,” he said. “Keith Whitley was probably the last [singer] that touched me.”
Finally, Jackson acknowledged he might have made some small contribution to country music. “I feel by today’s standards I’ve earned a little respect as an artist and songwriter,” he mumbled modestly.
A reporter reminded him that he had another 50 to celebrate this year — his 50th birthday (which comes on Oct. 17). “That’s a couple of good milestones,” he said, “and I appreciate them both.”
The actual ceremonies were brief and consisted of a short video illustrating Jackson’s career highlights and a few observations and recollections Jackson shared with the crowd.
Joe Galante, the chief of Sony BMG Records, introduced the video and noted that Jackson is one of only six country artists to have sold 50 million albums or more. At the conclusion of the video, Jackson and Galante moved to the front of the ice blocks where Galante presented him with a large commemorative plaque.
To use his own term, Jackson “rambled” through his remarks, telling anecdotes and thanking such pivotal figures as Keith Stegall (his longtime producer) and Tim DuBois, (who signed him to his Arista Records deal). He also praised the musicians who’d made his albums sound good. “Nobody ever paid me to play a guitar,” he said wryly.
Jackson recalled one incident that told him he might be important to his label. “[Arista founder] Clive Davis came down from New York and did his speech for me,” he said. “That was a high honor for a country boy.”
Generally, he said, the people who’ve headed Arista have let him go his own way. “They pretty much let me alone, and I leave them alone — sometimes.”
He thanked his fan club president and described his wide base of fans. “Some have to have walkers to get to the shows,” he said, “and some have to have their mamas to carry them there.”
Jackson credited Randy Travis for “kicking that door down for us” that enabled them to record and perform traditional country music.
“As my mama used to say,” Jackson said, “I’m just so blessed.”
Obviously it takes more than selling 50 million albums to transform Jackson’s self-effacing drawl into a yelp of triumph.