When it comes to deeply autobiographical storytelling that resonates with the masses, no singer-songwriter does it better than Alan Jackson. Whether it's the honky-tonk-styled “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” or his quietly evocative 9/11 tribute “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?,” Jackson tells Billboard he almost always “visualizes” his music, drawing from his own experiences. In the days leading up to his induction into the Songwriters’ Hall Fame on June 14, the keeper 35 No. 1 country hits is still sharing his stories. (He recently wrote and recorded “You’ll Always be My Baby” for his youngest daughter, a strong contender to appear on his next album.) Below, Jackson looks back on some his biggest hits — and the surprising fan favorites.
Let’s start at the beginning with “Here in the Real World.” Did you have a sense that song would be your breakthrough hit? No, never. I thought it was a great song, but no. The story is, it was one the last songs we did in the session. We had started with a steel guitar intro in the studio, and the song just laid there and didn’t feel right. We were about to call it a day, and the song would never have made the album. I don’t remember who it was, maybe the producer, but someone] said, “Let’s try it with the fiddle intro,” and as soon as we got that fiddle intro, it turned into a hit. It just changed the whole feel the song. That’s what happens sometimes: It just takes one little thing to make it work. I’ve worked on songs in the studio, and you know it’s a good song, but you just keep banging on it. It doesn’t feel right. And all a sudden, we play it a little differently, like] change what the bass line is playing, and it changes the whole personality the song and makes it right.
What’s another song from early in your career that holds a particularly special place? When my wife and I moved to Nashville, I was in my mid-20s. She and I had grown up in a small town in Georgia, and I hadn’t lived anywhere else and had hardly traveled anywhere out the southeast. So when we moved here, it was a big move. My wife had a job that took her out town a lot, so I was there by myself and didn’t know anybody. I was pretty lonesome and sad, and the first Mother’s Day was coming up. I wrote this song for my mama. It was one the first songs I wrote in Nashville, and it’s called “Home.” It ended up on the first album, and later on the radio as a hit. It’s a true story about my mama and daddy, and the house they made their lives in and where we all grew up. And she lived there until last year, when she died.
My granddaddy had a little five-acre piece land. He was a carpenter and farmer, and he broke f a half acre for each his four children to have. My granddaddy had built this 12-by-12 tool shed, and when my mama and daddy got married, they rolled the tool shed on logs to their plot land next door. That’s where they lived. They started adding on to it, when they had four daughters, and by the time I came along, the house was a lot bigger. But I still had to sleep in the hall until I was 10 years old, when] my older sister went to college. And this song tells the story about them starting out in a tool shed and creating the house we would always call home.
Your storytelling is so vivid. Did you write poetry or short stories back in school? It must just be a gift from heaven. I don’t know where it came from. I never wrote a song in my life until I was in my early 20s. In Georgia I had a little band, and we started out singing everybody else’s songs on the radio, just a bar band. But I finally decided I needed to go to Nashville, and there was one guy I knew from back home who played music. He lived in Atlanta and knew a little about the business, and he said, “Man, if you’re going to Nashville to try to be a singer, you need to come up with your own songs.” So I started writing. I do remember in high school I wasn’t much a student — all I wanted to do was get out school. But I remember in English literature class when we had to write short stories, my teacher always bragged about what I wrote and read it in front the class, so maybe that was an early sign. I’m a real visual person. As I write and sing the songs now, I pretty much visualize the story. That may help, I don’t know.
Do you remember the name your bar band? Oh yeah. We were down in the basement at one the boy’s house, and it was one the first rehearsals. He worked as a carpenter and had tools and stuff sitting over there, and there was a baseboard box nails called Dixie Steel Nails, so that was the name our band.
You seem to have a bottomless source stories to draw from. I think it’s helped me, too, as a songwriter, that I didn’t got to college and had been working since I was 12, when I wasn’t in school. I did everything you can imagine, so by the time I moved to Nashville, I had already lived a lot lives and had a lot to pull from. I think that helped. When I think back to the guys I’ve always loved, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and Willie Nelson and other great writers, most them had lived a life really young, too, and back then you had to. By the time they were in their 20s, they had done a lot.
On another note, your storytelling on “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)? connected and continues to connect so many us who were grieving in the wake 9/11. I know everyone likes to talk about this one, and I’m still very amazed about how that song has hung on and almost taken on a new life its own outside the 9/11 part it. It’s a song about faith and love. After 9/11, I was as disturbed as everybody and was very emotional, and I told myself I didn’t think I would want to write a song about it. It felt like it was too disturbing at the time, and I didn’t want to feel like I was jumping on and taking advantage people at a time like this. But it was about the middle October, just a month or so after, and I had agreed to play a concert down in my hometown for a fundraiser for a home for underprivileged children. We did the show and flew back to Nashville the same night, and I got back home and went to bed. Somewhere in the middle the night I woke up, and that song was laying here.
The chorus just came out; the melody, the lyrics just started pouring out. I got up in my underwear and had to get it down. It was pretty much the whole chorus. I went back to bed and got up the next morning, and that’s when I started writing all the verses and started seeing all the things I wrote about become visual: all the footage I’d seen on television, interviews with people about how it affected them. The verses were witness to all that. And even after I wrote it, I played it for my wife, course, and she said, “I don’t know if I can do anything with the song.” And then my manager and my record label heard it and said, “You’ve got to put this song out.” So we debuted it on the CMA Awards sometime in late October.
This one was a departure from your usual autobiographical approach. It’s always felt different — where it came from, the subject matter. Even today, I still get comments about it from people who tell me the song made such a difference to them at the time. I’ve met a lot 9/11 survivors and families people who didn’t survive. I’ve heard so much about that song, it’s a little overwhelming. I didn’t really like all the attention it caught. I just said, “Hey, its just a song. God sent these lyrics to me in the middle the night. I’m just the messenger.”
Do you ever feel like your songs are too vulnerable, too close to home? I’ve had things like when my wife had a bout with cancer a few years ago — see her going through it is worse than me having it. And I wrote a song for that. Sometimes you get stuff that’s too close, but I almost always write something that’s directly out my life, and I try not to make it so personal that other people can’t connect with it somehow in their own way. Another song I hear so much about in that way is “Drive.”
I wrote that when my daddy died. I didn’t want to write something that sounded like a funeral song — I wanted to write something that was a memory him. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard from people, “I love that 'Drive' song, it reminds me my daddy when he let me drive the tractor on our farm.” Even from] young kids today that weren’t even born when the song came out. Same with “Chattahoochee.” I love that song, but it’s about the river where I grew up. When the label wanted to put that song out, I said, “I don’t think many people around this country are going to give a flip about the Chattahoochee River or know what it is.” And they said, “It doesn’t matter, everybody has a Chattahoochee River.”
A version this article originally appeared in the June 2 issue Billboard.