Everyone has a story about where they were when 9/11 occurred. And anybody who watched the CMA Awards in 2001 has an indelible memory of hearing Alan Jackson articulate what so many people felt when he quietly unveiled “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” on the live broadcast.
“At the time, it was very meaningful to people, and I felt really good about contributing something,” Jackson said in a recent interview for country radio stations. “And then I thought it would just fade away, and then we’d ease it out of the show, but now I see people out there that I feel like are waiting for that song, you know?”
As the 10th anniversary approaches, the song has retained its potency. He’ll perform it on Sunday (Sept. 11) at the Washington National Cathedral to mark the historic milestone.
“I think it’s more than just the 9/11 connection,” he said. “I mean, the real hook in it is quotes right out of the Bible anyway. And still, at night, it’s one of my biggest songs in the show. It’s hard to follow it, but I see so many that are holding up them lighters and are glad to hear it, and I think are moved by it, and glad I did it.
“And I heard so many stories back during that time when it was happening. People said, ‘Oh, they quit their jobs, and they changed their lifestyles and started going to church and found somebody to marry!’ It was just like all these things that affected. … Those were big changes!”
Like the rest of the nation, Jackson turned to newscasts for constant updates and information.
“I think I was probably like most people that were impacted with that day and the months that followed,” he noted. “You know, everybody was glued to the news and television, and I think it really affected a lot of people — their perspective on their lives and their jobs and their families and where they were and what they were wanting to do and how they looked at things. I mean, that’s what I was thinking, too.”
He wrote the song a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, following a late-night moment of inspiration. Referring to himself in the lyrics as “just a singer of simple songs,” he sang the chorus into a tape recorder and wrote the rest of the song in the morning.
“I just pretty much visualized a lot of those scenes and stories I’d heard and seen on television or heard people talk about,” he said. “The song came out of nowhere in the middle of the night — the chorus did. Just a gift. And I got up and scribbled it down and put the melody down so I wouldn’t forget it. And then the next day, I started piecing all those verses together that were the thoughts I’d had or visuals I’d had, and … that was about it.”
People could immediately see themselves in the poignant lyrics. The song’s initial verse is as follows:
Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?
“I had so many people tell me that there’s always a line or something in there that they did, whether it was go to church or pick up their Bible or go see their mother or watch a sunset,” Jackson said. “I mean, just a lot of things in there people told me that they had actually done those things, so … I guess I was like everybody else, just feeling those same feelings.”
After his CMA performance, the song quickly climbed to No. 1 on the country chart and stayed there for five weeks. The following year, he won five CMA Awards, including entertainer of the year, male vocalist and album (Drive), as well as single and song of the year honors for “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” He also claimed his first-ever Grammy for the song.
Jackson’s manager ultimately persuaded the CMA Awards producers to let him debut a new song — and a slow, somber one at that. According to a CMT.com news item the day before the event, the composition was “just over a week” old. In the anniversary-related interview, Jackson recalled the night he first performed it publicly.
“It was a tough performance for me,” he said. “You know, just the whole idea of releasing that song was a little bit tough. I wasn’t sure I wanted to put that out, but everybody convinced me that it was the thing to do … and in retrospect, I agree with that.
“But, you know, I hadn’t really sung the song much, first of all. It was just in the studio, basically, and when I wrote it … so it’s hard to go out there and sing something new, anyway, and just the topic made it nerve-wracking, too.
“I didn’t think about what was going to happen or anything. We just sang it. And I just remember, other than being relieved that I got through it, I just felt very proud that it seemed to cause a reaction in people … and I was proud that I got to do it and that it seemed like it meant something.”