Few artists in any musical genre ever achieve the level of sustained success Alan Jackson has enjoyed over the past two decades. That success continues with the release of a two-CD compilation, 34 Number Ones, and a Grammy nomination for “As She’s Walking Away,” his hit collaboration with the Zac Brown Band.
During a recent interview at CMT’s offices in Nashville, the Georgia native reflected on his career, including his pre-stardom days spent working in the mailroom at CMT’s former sister network, TNN: The Nashville Network. He also talked about how a leisurely afternoon with his wife, Denise, once prompted him to listen to all of his albums again.
CMT.com: There are still some people at CMT who remember when you worked at TNN.
Yeah, I know. I saw some of them out there — the camera guys, the crew — that I remember from way back.
What was it like for you to be working for TNN?
Hey, you know what? That was a good thing for me because I was so stupid when I came to Nashville. I didn’t know anything about the business. I’d never been around any entertainment or stars or anything. I got to see a lot of the entertainers coming in and out and some of those live shows they recorded. And the Opry was part of the complex there, so it was really an educational time for me.
Was it frustrating to be so close to the music industry while your music career was still so far removed from it?
Yeah, sometimes. To be honest with you, I only worked there for about six months. It seems like a long time when I was there when I look back at it, but I learned a lot there. I still had recorded some demos and got close to a record deal even when I was there — that quick. And so, yeah, it was a little bit disheartening to be all around it and not be a part of it. But, like I say, I think it gave me a chance to learn.
For anybody who comes to work in Nashville, it’s a big deal the first time you see some of the stars. It’s still a magical thing.
I’ll never forget, when I worked there at TNN, they had that awards show or something. That was the CMAs, I guess, on that compound at the time out at the Opry House. And I got to go on Hank Jr.‘s bus to deliver some contracts or papers or something to him. When he came walking out of the back of that bus, man, he looked like he was 30-feet tall! (laughs) I was just a huge fan, and I’ll never forget that.
You mentioned that you had some offers from other labels before you signed to Arista? How close were you to signing any of those?
We had some kind of crazy deal. This guy … came up with this plan where he was going to sign 10 new acts at the same time and put them all on one album. They’d all have one single, and whichever one hit … .We actually had that offer, and I almost did it. I think I finally got some attorney that I didn’t know to help me with it. He said, “I’d pass on it.” He talked me into passing on it because he just felt like I wouldn’t get a really true shot there.
Tim DuBois started Arista Nashville from scratch. Did you know him? What was it about him that made you trust him?
I didn’t know him at all. After I learned about the label starting, they were coming to a showcase or something. I was doing a showcase for some labels. That was the first time I’d really known who he was. I guess initially what impressed me about Tim was that I liked him because he wasn’t just a businessman. He was a songwriter. He wrote the Restless Heart song [“Bluest Eyes in Texas”], and Jerry Reed had a big hit with “She Got the Goldmine.” I felt like he had a music ear as well as a business sense to him. And that’s what he was, and I respected that, and he was just a nice fellow.
One song that didn’t exactly qualify for 34 Number Ones was “Blue Blooded Woman.” How much of a disappointment was it in 1989 when your first single only peaked in the 40s on the chart? Or were you happy just because it charted?
(laughs) Aw, I was heartbroken! I mean, I’d seen too many acts come along that had one or two singles that didn’t make it, and then they’re gone. So I knew you didn’t have many shots. And even worse, after that thing died, my wife came home and said she was pregnant with our first child. We weren’t really planning that, and I thought, “Oh, man. My song died and my wife’s pregnant. I’m gonna have to get a job and end this career.” And then “Here in the Real World” came along.
Other than compiling the greatest hits package or putting together a set list for your concerts, do you spend much time thinking about how successful these songs have been?
I don’t spend hardly any time thinking about it, to be honest with you. (laughs) When we were putting this package together and I sat down and looked at it, even though I perform a lot of those songs, a lot of them I don’t anymore. I just don’t have time to do them all. I do the ones I feel like are more popular.
I tell you what got me was a few years ago, Denise and I … I hardly ever listen to my own music … but we were sitting around the house in the summertime. We were out by the pool, having a drink or something, and we put in all my CDs, I think in order, and listened to every cut out there, just sitting around. I’d never done that. It was just crazy to hear all of that. I mean, I love some of the album cuts better than the hits. It was just amazing to hear all that material. It’s hard to imagine that I’ve lasted that long.
As you listened to those albums back to back, could you hear yourself progressing and moving into different directions?
Sometimes. I mean, my voice has gotten a little deeper sounding as I’ve gotten older, I think. I noticed that. On the early records, my voice sounds a little higher. I know I’ve dropped some keys on some of those that we still sing. Yeah, I mean, I could hear what was going on in my life, especially the songs I wrote. You know, where if it was a time when Denise and I weren’t doing good or something and I wrote some stuff in there that other people might not hear, but I do. I know what it’s about. Whatever happened to be going on at the time, all that brings back a lot of memories. Again, as I’ve gotten a little more mature, I hear some subtle changes in the songs that I’ve chosen.
When did you record your version of “Ring of Fire” that’s on the new compilation?
We cut part of that thing years ago, and it’s been sitting in the can. We went in and redid it. We used some of it, I think. I resang it and did some other stuff with it. I’d always loved that cut. We just never did anything with it. Gary Overton, who’s running the label now, he’s an old friend who used to manage me. He wanted to put it on there. I’d forgotten about the thing. I went back and listened to it, and got Keith [Stegall], my producer, and I agreed with him. I thought it was a pretty cool cut. I’d never gotten to do a Johnny Cash song, and I’ve covered a bunch of stuff. I always really felt like it was something I wanted to do.Read the second part of the Alan Jackson interview.