Alan Jackson: Reluctant Hero (2002)
Alan Jackson’s latest single is shaping up to be his biggest hit ever.
He debuted "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)," a poignant ballad about the events of Sept. 11, on the CMA Awards telecast to an intensely emotional response from the live audience, practically stopping the show. Then he watched the song zoom up the charts faster than anything he’s ever recorded — and its lyrics were even entered into the U.S. Congressional record.
More importantly, "Where Were You" has galvanized fans across America desperate to make sense of the horrors they saw that September day and aching to express their pain, grief and anger.
The amazing success of the song makes its soft-spoken creator, well ... just a little uncomfortable.
"The whole reception it’s gotten has been overwhelming, to be honest," admits Alan. "After we did the CMAs, I couldn’t hardly deal with it. I’ve had so many compliments and comments, it’s almost made me feel weird about it, in a way. I’m glad and very proud that everybody liked it, but it was almost hard to deal with, really." He needn't have worries—listeners have embraced the song wholeheartedly, recognizing it as an honest cry from the heart
Still, Alan was a little nervous about how people would accept a song that depicts the nation’s many reactions to the events of Sept. 11 — a tragedy that left him stunned and devastated.
Where were you when the world stop 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 Rising against that blue sky Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor Or did you just sit down and cry
"I was very disturbed and touched by that day, and everything that surrounded it," Alan says. "Like most people, I think for weeks I was probably clinically depressed. It was hard to get over it."
The need to express his feelings about the attacks began that morning. Alan had just come in from a leisurely walk when he looked at the TV — and couldn’t believe his eyes. He knew he wanted to write a song about it — but for weeks, the perfect expression dangled just beyond his reach.
"Every time I tried to write something, it just ..." He pauses. "I don’t know, it didn’t seem right. I’ve always been real careful about writing or recording ‘preachy’ songs, and I didn’t want it to look like I was taking advantage of the situation for my own career or something. I never wanted it to come across that way."
Then the answer came to him as he lay dreaming one Sunday morning, in late October at home with wife Denise and daughters Mattie, 11; Ali, 8; and Dani, 4.
"I’d done a show Saturday night down in Georgia and flown home," he recalls. "I got to bed late, and woke up about three or four in the morning with this lyric and melody in my head, and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was kind of odd — it was so strong and so clear. Pretty much the chorus was all there, and I had the opening line: Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
So Alan quietly roused himself from bed, went to his study and sang the idea into a digital recorder he’d gotten only a couple of weeks before. Satisfied, he went back to bed.
"When I got up the next morning, my wife and the girls went to church, and I stayed home and finished it," he says. "It went really quick. When I wrote the song, I didn’t sit down and analyze it, and think about whether it was politically correct or if it was gonna get played on the radio. It was just there. I just wrote what I felt."
The next day, Alan was in the studio finishing work on his new album, Drive, when he mentioned the song to producer Keith Stegall, who asked to hear it. "I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m kind of close to it. It may be too much,’ " recalls Alan. "I was real reluctant about even playing it for Keith. But I did, and he said, ‘Man, we need to record that!’ "
Once the tune was on tape, things took off like a runaway train. Keith insisted Alan play the song for his manager and record label, and everyone quickly agreed to propose to the CMA that Alan perform "Where Were You" on that Wednesday's award show. Alan was knew a winner when they heard it—and asked Alan to premier the powerful new number on the show.
Radio stations across the nation taped the song from the CMA telecast and were playing it on the air by the next morning. Georgia Rep. Mac Collins even entered the lyrics into the U.S. Congressional record, citing the song as "an example of how all Americans can help heal our nation from the wounds we suffered on that tragic day."
Listeners clamored for a copy of the song so fervently that the release of Drive was pushed forward from spring to January. The new CD includes both a studio recording of the song as well as the live CMA performance.
As for the album’s other 11 songs, Alan self-effacingly describes Drive as "just a bunch of country music. My stuff has always kinda sounded the same. I don’t think it’s any new direction for me, it’s just some good songs." Alan was heartened when industry insiders called it his best work in years, but he remains modest about it. "I like it," he says, "but it’s hard for me to look at it from somebody else’s perspective."
Nine of the tunes were written or co-written by Alan, the most he’s composed for an album since 1991’s Don’t Rock The Jukebox. "It just kind of happened, I guess," chuckles Alan about the creative outpouring. "For some reason, I wrote a few things. I don’t know why."
Among those things was the title song, a heartfelt homage to his father, Eugene, who died two years ago. "I’ve always wanted to write something about him," says Alan. "I’ve attempted it two or three times, but I didn’t want to write some kind of sad song — I wanted to write something positive."
For another song, Alan reached into the past: he co-wrote "Bring On The Night" back in 1987. "It’s wild," he chuckles. "That song’s been laying around ever since then. I’ve thought about cutting it a couple times, but never had." Songwriter Charlie Craig, who composed the tune with Alan and Keith Stegall, nudged Alan’s memory by sending a copy of it to his house.
"My wife heard it," Alan explains, "and said she loved that song and thought I ought to cut it, so I did. I’ve got a bunch of ‘em laying around like that — I’ll think about them for the album, and then for some reason or other we won’t get to it. Some of ‘em are 10 years old, and they’re probably worth recording. It’s hard to do ‘em all!"
Drive also features the hotly anticipated re-teaming of Alan with superstar "Murder On Music Row" duet partner George Strait on a cut called "Designated Drinker." Another of Alan's faves is his version of singer/songwriter Irene Kelley’s gorgeously melancholy "A Little Bluer Than That." "I love that thing," exclaims Alan. "I was driving home from the airport one Saturday night and turned on the Grand Ole Opry, and she was on. I’d never even heard of her before, but she sang that song and I said, ‘Dang, that’s good.’ I made a little note of it." Alan remembered the song when it was time to record Drive, and even invited Irene to sing harmony with him on the track.
With Drive finished a little earlier than expected, Alan has been filling his time "hanging out with the family," he says. With a happy home, 35 million albums sold and a major hit riding the charts, Alan has little left to prove — but there are still a few odds and ends he’d like to take care of.
"I’ve got to make a traditional Christmas album for my mama, for one thing," he laughs. "I made one a few years ago, but it wasn’t real traditional. So she’s told me forever, ‘You’ve got to make me a regular Christmas album.’ And then I’ve got to do a gospel album for her, too!"
But apart from those little items, Alan is content. "I’ve been so blessed already, it’s hard to reach out for much more," he says. "I just think I’m mighty fortunate I’m still around and able to make the kind of country music I like. I’m just real comfortable."
DRIVEN TO SUCCEED
There’s a reason Alan Jackson’s new album is called Drive. "There’s two or three songs on the album that have something to do with a car or driving," he admits with a laugh. "The whole album was just kind of surrounded by it."
Automobiles have always been an obsession for Alan — he even worked as a mechanic and car salesman after high school. They’ve always been integral to his music as well, from "Mercury Blues" to "Buicks To The Moon," and his hit "Little Man" was inspired by an extended road trip through small towns in Georgia and Florida.
True to form, most of the songs on Drive mention automobiles in some way or another. In fact, the new CD kicks off with the title track, which describes his father, Eugene, teaching young Alan to drive. "That’s what he taught me — cars, vehicles," says Alan. "That was a big part of my life, and still is."
Another vehicle-related number on Drive is "First Love," written about the first car he ever owned. "I always wanted to write a song about that," he says, "and I never have before."
Alan bought the white 1955 Thunderbird at age 15, and sold it in 1985 to help buy his first house. In 1993, Denise tracked the car down, bought it back and gave it to Alan as a Christmas present. "It’s kind of a neat story," he chuckles. "It’s a pretty unique car, and I still own it today. It was big piece of my life as a teenager."
Alan Jackson’s "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" has touched listeners across America and beyond — and they’ve let him know about it with a deluge of letters and e-mails.
For example, Alan received an e-mail from New York firefighter Michael Bernstein, who was at the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed. Michael escaped with his life, but many of his fellow firefighters were not so lucky.
"I consider myself a strong person, and a bit of a tough guy," he writes, "but I just heard your new song, and it brought me to tears. I just want to say thank you, because those tears I shed are helping me heal. That song will be playing in my firehouse for a long time."
Joan Burton’s brother was killed in the World Trade Center, and "Where Were You" also moved her to tears. "Words cannot express how this song has affected me," she writes. "After the attacks, I had never really broken down, but this song has allowed me to do so. I know that sounds strange, but it did."
And "Where Were You" continues to inspire American soldiers, as U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Carroll, deployed in the Middle East, testifies. "That song really strikes the heart of all us guys over here," he writes. "I guess you can say it’s a motivational song, as it reminds us how we felt — how everyone felt — on that day. Thanks and God bless."