Alan Jackson still lives that honky-tonk dream

Juli Thanki, jthanki@tennessean.com 11:16 a.m. CDT July 18, 2015

Alan Jackson’s move 30 years ago from Georgia to Nashville brought him fame and fortune. (Photo: George Walker IV/ The Tennessean)

 

In 1985 a 27-year-old Alan Jackson moved from Georgia to Nashville to chase his dream of becoming a country music artist.

Thirty years later, that lanky singer from the sticks is one of the genre’s biggest stars, a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame who has sold nearly 60 million records since the 1990 release of his debut album, “Here in the Real World.” All because he was “naïve enough to pack up and go,” he smiles.

“I’m from a small town where people didn’t often move to pursue big dreams like that,” Jackson says. He had been playing in small clubs around Georgia, and, as more and more people told him he sounded good enough to be on the radio, his confidence grew, and he started to think he should relocate.

Two other motivating factors helped Jackson make the final decision to move: “A couple friends I grew up with wanted to be airline pilots,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘They’re never going to make it.’ They got their private pilot licenses and worked for years and years. Finally both of them got hired by a major carrier out of Atlanta. I thought, ‘Man, if they can do that, I can at least give (Nashville) a shot.’ ”

The other moment came when Jackson’s wife, Denise, who was working as a flight attendant, saw Glen Campbell’s band waiting for a plane. She introduced herself and mentioned her husband’s aspirations. Campbell gave her a business card for his music publishing company, and soon the Jacksons and all of their possessions were making the drive to Music City.

If his friends and family thought he was crazy, they didn’t let on. “Daddy said, ‘You can always come home,’ and that was one of the things I’ve always remembered,” Jackson says.

Once he made it to Nashville, Jackson dug out Campbell’s business card. “I went right to the door (of the publishing company), knocked on it and said, ‘Here I am. What do I do now?’ ”

It was suggested that Jackson take some more time to hone his songwriting skills. To make ends meet, he worked a number of jobs, including one in the mailroom at The Nashville Network. It was an entry-level job, but working for TNN exposed Jackson to various facets of the industry.

Alan Jackson released a new album, “Angels and Alcohol,” on Friday. (Photo: George Walker IV/ The Tennessean)

“I knew nothing about the music business at all,” Jackson says. “I didn’t know what a producer does or how people got deals or anything. I only worked there six months, but I saw a lot going on, met a lot of people and learned a lot about (the music business). It was a great place for me to be instead of working in a factory somewhere.”

Eventually Jackson’s writing had improved enough that he “talked Glen Campbell’s publishing guy into paying me $100 a week to be a writer for them.” He picked up extra cash working as a demo singer, and would spend his nights playing shows around the Southeast, driving from gig to gig in an old Dodge van.

Like his pilot pals back in Georgia, one day Jackson’s hard work paid off, and he became the first artist signed to Arista Nashville. He and producer Keith Stegall — the man who recorded the material that helped Jackson get his record deal — recorded his first album, “Here in the Real World.”

Alan Jackson performs at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday, April 11, 2015.  George Walker IV / The Tennessean

Its lead single, “Blue Blooded Woman,” flopped, peaking at No. 45, while at home, Alan and Denise discovered that they were expecting their first child.

“We weren’t really planning that,” Jackson admits. “I thought if I put out another single that died, they’d probably drop me from the label and I’d be going back to work to pay for this baby.”

In early 1990, the label released Jackson’s second single, the title track to “Here in the Real World.” It was a smash, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot Country Songs chart. His career took off and has “been smokin’ ever since.”

Choices

Throughout his career, Jackson has remained a stalwart defender of traditional country music, a position that has, at times, generated some controversy.

In 1999 Jackson was slated to perform at the CMA Awards. At the same time, one of Jackson’s musical heroes, George Jones, was told that his time to sing his single, “Choices,” had been cut. Jones then decided he would not perform at all during the awards show.

“Everybody was talking about it around town, that it was disrespectful to treat George like that, and I thought the same thing,” Jackson says.

Alan Jackson performs at Bridgestone Arena.  George Walker IV / The Tennessean

When it came time to perform on the live broadcast, a tuxedo-clad Jackson began singing “Pop a Top,” a single from his covers album, “Under the Influence.” Halfway through the song, he paused for a moment, then began “Choices” in honor of Jones as audience members gave him a standing ovation. It was a move Jackson had been secretly contemplating; his band didn’t even know what he was going to do, because he didn’t want the awards show organizers to hear about his plans and cut his performance time, too.

“I said (to the band), ‘Look, guys, if I stop in the middle of this song, just hang in there with me,’ ” Jackson remembers. “A lot of people thought it was a good thing, and some thought I was crazy, too.”

Jones was touched by the gesture, and had a plaque made for Jackson that celebrated “the biggest heart in country music.”

Years later, Jackson would sing in honor of his friend one more time, when, in 2013, he performed Jones’ signature song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” at the legend’s funeral.

Looking ahead

On Friday Jackson released a new album called “Angels and Alcohol.” It’s quintessential Alan Jackson, and stone cold country. It seems he and longtime producer Stegall, who’s worked on all but one of his albums, have record-making down to a science.

“It’s pretty easy,” Jackson says. “We try to keep my sound, but at the same time, try not to make it sound too much like ’90s music to people.”

Alan Jackson performs at Bridgestone Arena.  George Walker IV / The Tennessean

Jackson is the primary songwriter on the album, penning seven of the album’s 10 songs.

“I’ve always been more proud of the songwriting than anything. I enjoy creativity, seeing songs come to life and how they affect people. That’s the most creative part of the business to me, is the songwriting and making records,” he says.

 

The album’s opening track, “You Can Always Come Home,” was written after Jackson’s middle daughter moved to California, a moment that made him think of the words his father said to him when he moved to Nashville.

For three decades, Music City has been good to the Georgia boy. His exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum recently closed after an extended run, and in April his anniversary tour, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of his first recording, made a successful stop at Bridgestone Arena.

These days, when the 56-year-old Jackson isn’t on the road, he’s on the water. Four years ago, he and Denise moved to a house on a north Georgia lake that Jackson has loved since he was a little boy.

Alan Jackson reaches down to hand a fan a T-shirt.  George Walker IV / The Tennessean

Although the radio isn’t as kind to him now as it once was, Jackson has no complaints. And he certainly won’t hang up his signature white cowboy hat any time soon.

“All I do is play music (and) go fishing,” he says. “What is there for me to retire from?”

Reach Juli Thanki at 615-259-8091 or on Twitter @JuliThanki