Alan Jackson & George Strait: Tracing the Origins of Some of Country Music’s Most Traditional Songs

Originally published in the March 31, 2014, issue of Country Weekly magazine. 

Just call them the ol’ consistents. Since the beginning of their careers, Alan Jackson and George Strait have both remained true to their sound and style of traditional country music. The pair has racked up more than 100 hits combined, with more quite likely to come (George alone has five more albums due!), so there’s no doubt that country fans will continue to have a source for that traditional twang.

In this special cover feature, we look back at some of the songs that Alan and George have released through the years, the singles that have made an unmistakable impression on country music—songs such as Alan’s “Gone Country,” George’s “Easy Come, Easy Go” and many more. We can’t overlook the pair’s controversial 2000 collaboration, “Murder on Music Row,” which raised both eyebrows and applause from fans and industry peers alike for its pointed commentary on who killed traditional country music. However, looking over these songs, it’s clear that this musical homicide was only an attempted murder. Thanks to George and Alan and those who follow in their bootsteps, country music is very much alive.

“Gone Country”

performed by Alan Jackson | written by Bob McDill

Songwriters are notorious for picking up on little phrases or sayings that they hear around town or through friends. Back in the early 1990s, Bob McDill kept hearing one common topic come up among his friends and the country music industry in general. 

“I kept hearing people say things like their careers were fading in L.A. and New York . . . saying how L.A. is no place to raise a family these days with the smog and the crime,” recalls Bob. “And the real reason so many of them were moving was to try to get their careers going again in country music.”

Bob didn’t act on the thought right away, but rather let it stew for some time. When the timing was right, he decided to try his hand at penning a song simply titled “Gone Country.”

“‘Gone Country’ was just sarcasm,” says Bob with a laugh while reflecting on the day he wrote the song that Alan Jackson made famous. “I thought it would be even funnier if it had a rock ’n’ roll riff. It was really structured like a rock ’n’ roll song.”

In the song, Bob detailed three individuals who had reached the end of the line—or their careers—and headed to Music City. When the song was complete, Bob was happy, but he did have his concerns about what sort of future his creation might experience at that point.

“I really didn’t envision anybody wanting to cut the song,” says Bob. “It was exposed to a few people, but I think some were afraid of it. They thought it was too sarcastic. They don’t like to insult people.”

But Alan’s camp felt differently. They played the song for Alan, who loved what it said and how it sounded. “Alan has always done whatever he wanted,” says Bob, grinning. “He wasn’t afraid of what people might say.”

Alan recorded “Gone Country” for his fourth studio album, Who I Am, in 1994 and premiered the tune as his latest single live on the CMA Awards that year. As Alan anticipated, the song was a huge hit with his fans, and country music lovers who helped take the song all the way to the top of the charts.

“I thought what he did with the song was great,” enthuses Bob. “It was a phenomenal hit, and it raced up the charts. Everybody in town was talking about it, saying, ‘Have you heard it yet?’ and always patting me on the back and buying me drinks. It turned out to be a big, big song for both myself and Alan. I didn’t think you could get away with that kind of sarcasm much . . . but I did!”

“If I Know Me”

performed by George Strait | written by Dean Dillon / Pam Belford

Dean Dillon has always had a great track record with getting songs recorded by the King of Country, George Strait. Landing a writing session with legendary tunesmith Dean is something every writer dreams about, and librarian Pam Belford was no different. With a similar love and passion for songwriting, Pam sought out Dean. After the two struck up a friendship and got a few songs under their belts, Pam brought a new idea into the writing room that Dean found intriguing: “If I Know Me.”

“Right off the bat, I knew it was something I could definitely relate to,” Dean says.

As they dug into the meaning behind those words, verses were formed around their solid chorus that hit close to home for them both: If I know me, I’ll turn this car around / I won’t get halfway through town, and I’ll be sorry / I’ll stop and call, and you’ll say you’re sorry, too / and I’ll come runnin’ back to you / If I know me.

“Like most of my songs,” says Dean, “at some point in my life, I probably lived it.”

After the song was complete, Dean knew what the next step in the tune’s life would be: finding its way into the hands of George.

“Back then, on the weeks that George was recording, on Monday mornings at 10 o’clock you’d find Dean Dillon across from his desk,” says the songwriter with a smile. “I remember when I played him that song, he loved it and wanted to record it.”

George put “If I Know Me” on his 1991 album, Chill of an Early Fall, and released the song as the first single from the project. The song peaked at No. 1 on the country singles chart, giving George just one more notch in his amazing, record-breaking career.

“I was very proud of what we did with this song,” notes Dean. “And I still am today.”

“Here in the Real World”

performed by Alan Jackson | written by Alan Jackson / Mark Irwin

Back in the late 1980s, Mark Irwin was a new writer in town working on building a name for himself. Around the same time, a singer/songwriter by the name of Alan Jackson was also trying to make his own mark in Nashville.

Turns out they had a friend in common with Barry Coburn, who was Mark’s publisher and Alan’s manager, working to get the singer his first record deal. Barry decided Mark and Alan should meet, so he had them over to his house one night for dinner.

“Barry got us drunk and suggested we write the next day,” says Mark, “which we did.”

Like any first-time co-writers, the two felt each other out on various topics and ideas in order to find the perfect hook—one they could both agree on. “After a little while of striking out on ideas, Alan said he had these two lines—cowboys don’t cry and heroes don’t die—but he didn’t know what to do with them. To me, they sounded like he was talking about the movies.”

It was in that moment that the two stumbled upon a song idea about the differences between the movies and “real world” situations that one faces on a daily basis. “And boom, the tune came pouring out,” says Mark.

“Here in the Real World” became the title to Mark and Alan’s new song, which Alan believed in so much that he immediately recorded it after landing his record deal with Arista Nashville, giving his debut album that same title. The title track, released as the second single from Here in the Real World in 1990, became Alan’s very first Top 40 hit. “It was pretty surreal after it was released,” recalls Mark. “I was at a friend’s house one evening—this was before everybody had cellphones. I got a call on her home phone, and it was Alan. He tracked me down. He probably went through at least five phone calls to find me, but he tracked me down to tell me that our song would be going No. 1 on the next week’s Billboard chart. That was pretty awesome of him to do so, just to let me know. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“But I think the moment it hit me most was when I was bringing a cassette tape of songs I was about to demo to a musician friend of mine,” adds Mark, who has since gone on to write many hit songs, including Tim McGraw’s chart-topping “Highway Don’t Care.” “He was playing a gig and when I got there, the band was playing ‘Here in the Real World,’ and the dance floor was packed. That’s when it hit me that I wrote something that actually had an impact. That was pretty great.”

“Easy Come, Easy Go”

performed by George Strait | written by Dean Dillon / AAron Barker

Texas-based songwriter Aaron Barker had a string of successes writing songs for George Strait, including the chart-topping “Baby Blue” and “Love Without End, Amen,” in the ’90s. But up until then, Aaron was only accustomed to writing songs on his own. So when his publishing company asked him to head to Nashville for a few days to write with the legendary Dean Dillon (who was responsible for his own share of George Strait hits), Aaron made the trek from San Antonio. The day after his arrival, Dean showed up at Aaron’s motel room, guitar in hand, ready to write.

“He came in, and he sat there on the floor with his back against the wall and his guitar in his lap,” Aaron recalls. “So I just kind of did the same thing, opposite the room from him. We did something they hadn’t told me about—we did co-staring. How do you open up to somebody you just met? So we sat there and co-stared for quite a while. We weren’t really getting anywhere.”

Dean, who had just restored the vintage Pontiac parked outside the hotel room, suggested the two take a break to go pick up the car’s tags. As they drove around town, they got to small-talking, which led to both men opening a window into their personal lives.

“It turns out Dean was going through a really challenging spot in a relationship, and he was pretty upset about it,” notes Aaron. “He was getting a divorce, and my thought was, ‘Well, maybe he’s just not in the mood to write a song today. But good grief, I drove all the way from San Antonio! We need to do something.’” Aaron says the two began discussing “how, in a perfect world, these relationship breakups would just be easy, instead of dwelling on the difficulty of it and going through all this anxiety. Then we realized . . . that was our song we needed to write. We figured, it’s our picture, we can paint it however we want, and we really connected on this thing.”

Their song, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” was released in August of 1993 as the lead single from George’s album of the same name, and spent two weeks atop the chart later that year.

“That song has been so great because people know it everywhere,” Aaron says. “It’s crossed a lot of boundaries that country music [usually] doesn’t. It’s a small part of the great legacy of both Dean and George. To have been a small part of two of those great legacies has been just amazing for me.

“Dean is such a natural-born songwriter,” adds Aaron. “He’s just unbelievably great at what he does, and we have been great friends ever since we wrote this song. ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ has been the big one of our relationship, to date . . . but you never know what will happen tomorrow.”

“Murder on Music Row”

performed by George Strait and Alan Jackson | written by Larry Cordle / Larry Shell

That old saying—the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself—is surely true of country music. Over the years, the format has progressively evolved, but there will always be fans who miss the sound of steel guitars and fiddles—instruments whose use seems to have diminished drastically in recent years.

Even 14 years ago, that was the case, a fact that spawned a song idea in the mind of Larry Shell: “Murder on Music Row.” Larry knew that a title worded that strongly could only be written with someone who felt the same way about the state of country music, so he turned to his best friend in Nashville, Larry Cordle.

“Larry Shell is my oldest and dearest friend in town,” says Cordle. “When he had called me, I had kind of quit writing at the time because I was getting ready to do a new CD. I had all the songs picked out and everything. Larry called me and told me about his song idea, and I said, ‘Is it about killing country music?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s about.’”

The two decided to meet—on Music Row, of course—to dig into the idea and see where it would take them. “We sat down with this thing and just played a big A chord on the guitar,” recalls Cordle. “One of us had the first line, and it went on from there.”

As they worked, not once did they cringe while crafting lyrics that criticized the country music of the time, blaming rock-influenced drums and guitars for killing the genre’s traditional sound.

“The whole time we were writing it, we were just jumping up and down,” says Cordle, smiling. “We were really able to get it down. We were just having a ball doing it. To be honest with you, I didn’t think that anybody would touch it. I thought it would be so controversial, but we didn’t care,” he says, “because it was how we felt and what we had been talking about then for a long time.”

The two Larrys were both proven wrong when George Strait’s longtime manager, Erv Woolsey, heard “Murder on Music Row” and passed it along to the man himself. George went out on a limb, recording the song for his Latest Greatest Straitest Hits album in 2000, casting the song as a duet between himself and Alan Jackson.

While the song was not released as an official single, it stirred up so much media attention that it received sufficient unsolicited airplay to land at No. 38 on the Billboard country singles chart that same year.

“It’s just been one of those things that happened that you can’t explain,” says Cordle. “It was such a runaway thing right off the bat, and I am so thankful that Larry wanted me to be a part of his song.” 

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