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Nearly every country star - Alan, George and Garth included - walked a long, hard road to the top

Story by Chris Neal

A painfully shy young man, lanky and blond, sorts through the mail at a television network, wondering if he'll ever be on TV one day.

A twentysomething ranch hand almost abandons his dream of being a singer, worn down by the pressure of supporting his growing family.

A 23-year-old man drives all the way to Nashville from Stillwater, Okla. - then turns around the next day and drives all the way back, rejected and dejected.

For each of these three men, the dream did come true - eventually. Alan Jackson got out of that mailroom. George Strait didn't stay on the ranch. And a couple of years later Garth Brooks headed back to Nashville and took it by storm.

The secret of the "overnight sensation" in country music is that there's no such thing - for every seemingly sudden success, there are years of struggling to be heard, coping with rejection and scraping to make ends meet. Almost every star who's now living in comfort once wondered how his bills were going to get paid. And certainly, every one risked permanent poverty by giving up the chance at a steady job for the uncertainty of the music business.

Alan gave up predictable small-town life in Newnan, Ga., to come to forbidding Music City in 1985.

"When I said I wanted to sell everything and move to Nashville," he recalls, "everybody thought I'd gone crazy as hell."

And for a while, it looked like they were right. Alan and wife Denise lived hand-to-mouth for several years before Alan ever got a break. In the meantime, he logged long hours sorting letters in the TNN mailroom, catching a catnap in his van after work before hitting the clubs, hoping to perform.

"I was more fortunate than most, because I was only in town four or five years before I got a break," he says. "Though I did have the ups and downs of being turned down for those first few years."

George also faced the choice between a steady if hard-won income in his hometown and the possibility of stardom - or failure - in Nashville. In fact, he almost quit singing altogether in favor of a job in Uvalde, Texas, working for an agricultural supply company. Sure, he wanted to sing - but his children wanted to eat, too.

"I was beginning to think I wasn't good enough," he explains.

But wife Norma talked him into giving music one more shot - and this time it clicked. George had already made one failed trip to Nashville, but he returned to Music City and found himself much more welcome the second time around.

Garth's story is much the same - in the summer of 1985, he decided he had outgrown his local success in Stillwater, Okla., and wanted to take a stab at the big time. So he headed toward Nashville. But a mere 23 hours after arriving at the city limits, he turned around and went back to Oklahoma, having glimpsed Nashville's particularly brutal brand of rejection firsthand.

"I went back home and hid," he said later. "I just couldn't go back and face those people." A couple of years later, when he had built up his confidence, Garth took that long drive again - this time with new wife Sandy in tow. The two strained to pay their bills in their new home, but persevered together.

"I thought we weren't going to make it," he recalled. "I thought we were going to crash, go into debt, poverty - all this stuff. It was two people, newly married, struggling against debt." He and Sandy found decidedly unglamorous day jobs in a cowboy-boot store, and Garth supplemented his income - like Alan - with a little side money earned from songwriting.

Eventually, all three men would make their way through Nashville's maze and come out the other side as superstars. There would be more tough times ahead, but their efforts would finally be rewarded.

Still, even at the pinnacle of fame and wealth, you can bet these guys won't ever forget the hard times.

"The other day I had to get some tires on the truck, so I took it down to the shop," relates Alan, himself a former garage mechanic. "I was sitting there in that little waiting room, watching the guys put the tires on. And it just hit me hard: I've done that. I've been that guy out there mounting those tires and sweeping up the shop. I know what it feels like. And that's who I write songs for."

Find out your favorite stars sruggle to success in the current (8/20/02) "Newsstand Issue" on sale now!