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Many listeners think they know Alan Jackson -- and indeed, his music is very revealing about who he is, how he feels and what he thinks. But there's still a lot more to the man that he isn't ready to expose just yet.
"You can't show 'em everything!" says the superstar with a laugh, as his tour bus rolls down the highway between Minot, N.D., and Cheyenne, Wyo.
Alan is thinking about his new album, Greatest Hits Volume II, which gathers most of the hits he's enjoyed during the last seven years. Included are tunes that reflect his life during that time -- events like the death of his father, the birth of daughter Dani (the youngest of his three girls) and a brief separation from his wife of 24 years, Denise.
"Some of the songs might have reflected a little bit of what I was feeling at the time," he confesses, "and some of them don't have anything to do with it. Sometimes it may reflect something in your life or your position on something. Most of it just comes out."
Indeed, songwriting is such a natural instinct for Alan that he has little control over what he writes. "I might wake up in the morning, drink a cup of coffee sitting on the porch and this melody and hook comes out of my head," he explains. "Sometimes you don't know what inspires it or where it comes from, it's just there."
An intensely private star who prefers to let his music speak for him, Alan admits that occasionally he comes up with a song that's too personal to share. He admits he's sometimes written songs he's been reluctant to release, for fear of revealing too much of his inner life to listeners.
And sometimes it doesn't come from his own life at all. "I guess you can't help but write about your experiences, obviously -- but I don't have to go out and have a true personal experience to write about it," he says. "I'll watch a movie and be moved, and in an indirect way that could affect a song I write."
But maybe it's no coincidence that Alan's favorite of his hits is also the most personal -- the No. 1 "Drive (For Daddy Gene)."
"My daddy died a year or two earlier, and I tried to write a song about him," recalls Alan. "I never had been able to write anything, and then that one came out."
Not every song on Greatest Hits Volume II is as deeply emotional as "Drive" -- Alan shows his lighter side on the new track "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," a duet with the legendary Jimmy Buffett. The pair had previously collaborated on a version of Jimmy's classic "Margaritaville," and had a blast recording the tune.
"He's still full of energy," reports Alan of his friend. "I think he was excited about doing something new."
Fans were excited, too -- the song zoomed to No. 1 in just a few weeks. But while Alan is tickled by the instant success of the song, he admits to never having been able to predict which of his songs will be hits.
"People really liked 'Chattahoochee,' " he notes, still somewhat amazed about the success of the jaunty little song that chronicled his high--spirited, carefree teen years spent learning "a lot about livin' and a little ?bout love."
"That was a song that I thought was very regional. I thought, 'Nobody across the country's really gonna connect with that.' You just never know."
So back when he first rose to fame in the early 1990s, Alan could never have known that by 2003, he'd have enough hits for two greatest-hits albums.
"When I started out, I didn't know if I'd be there long enough to have two singles!" he chuckles. "I never thought that far ahead, to be honest. It seems like it's been real fast and phenomenal, but it was actually a slow-building process to get this far."
And fans can expect that ongoing process to continue -- Alan plans to start recording his next all-new album this winter. "I've written three or four songs already that I feel are probably decent enough to throw on one," he notes modestly.
And he already knows what the next album will sound like.
"It'll sound like all the rest of 'em," he jokes. "Just different songs!"