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Several years ago, Alan Jackson did something he likely never envisioned as a child in his Georgia hometown of Newnan -- he went to Washington to meet the president. Later, Alan related to a friend some cherished advice he'd been given before making that memorable trip to the White House.
"My daddy told me, 'Boy, don't forget where you came from,' " said the lanky superstar.
Alan's beloved "Daddy Gene," who died in 2000, needn't have worried.
At the peak of a phenomenal career that has seen sales of more than 40 million albums, 21 Billboard No. 1 songs (most of them self-penned) and another, "That'd Be Alright," heading to the top, a total of 60 career CMA nominations and a truckload of awards -- Alan has never forgotten where he came from.
His small-town roots are woven into the fabric of the songs he writes, the way he sings and the life he still lives. Hits like "Where I Come From," "Little Bitty," "Chattahoochie," "The Little Man" and "Drive" all point south to Newnan and its people, lifestyles and values.
Located about 30 miles southwest of Atlanta off I-85, it's a town of nearly 20,000 where Norman Rockwell or Andy Griffith would feel right at home. American flags wave on every corner of the town square, friendly faces are everywhere, and neighbors are willing not only to tell a stranger how to find a street or a landmark, but actually get in the car and show him.
And the people of Newnan certainly haven't forgotten the superstar who grew from such humble roots.
From the smiling waitress at the local IHOP to the senior citizen checking the heft of a garden hoe on display outside the Newnan Seed Store, people here know and love Alan. But it's not just because of his music.
"Beyond the stardom, he is truly a hometown hero," declares Alan Wood, principal of Newnan High School. "Alan is a guy wired into the core of what America is all about -- decency, charity, honesty. Those are the realities of what we try to teach our young people. The guy is simply a role model."
Never one to spend much time talking about doing things to help his home town, Alan puts his time -- and his money -- where his heart is. He's done two benefit concerts at his old high school, one in 1991 to set up a music scholarship and the other a couple of years ago to help build a group home for children awaiting adoption. It's named Angel's House after Alan's affectionate nickname for his three daughters -- his "little angels."
"The first thing he says to me when he gets off the bus for that first concert is, 'I really appreciate you letting me come back to my high school to do this show,' " continues the principal.
"Here's a guy gettin' ready to have a concert and turn a lot of money over to our music department for a perpetual Alan Jackson scholarship, and he's thanking us. That's how humble he is."
Of course being humble doesn't mean Alan is above asking for a rare special favor in return for a benefit performance. "We have a huge stadium," explains Principal Wood with a grin. "And one of my golden rules was to never let kids roll down the steep grass bank at games. So after the show I went to him and said, 'Alan, if there's ever anything we can do for you, you let me know.'
"And he smiled and said, 'Well, one of these days, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me go roll down that bank.' I said, 'Alan, you can go roll down that bank right now!' He didn't do it, but he loved it!"
Alan may not have gotten that roll, but he did have at least one good role while at Newnan High -- as the lead in his 1976 senior play. "It was Sing Out, Sweet Land," recalls Claudette Sides, director of the production and retired Newnan High art teacher. "I was surprised to have a high school boy in his first musical be as adept as Alan was. He knew his lines, he came to rehearsal on time and was great to work with.
"We did a few scenes where he went into the audience and he had no problem whatsoever. And Alan was so long-legged!" she laughs. "He could step from the floor up onto the stage!"
Read more about Alan Jackson in the current 5/27/03 "Newsstand Issue"  on sale now!