Alan Jackson Takes It from the Top

by Deborah Evans Price

Since his debut single in 1989, Alan Jackson has become one of the most dependable hitmakers in the Country format. Consistency has been a cornerstone in his personal and professional life, but in the past two years the soft-spoken Georgia native has faced major changes — one of his own choosing and another that no one ever wants to confront.

After weathering the devastating news in late 2010 that his wife, Denise, had cancer, Jackson is pleased to report that she’s healthy and life has returned to normal. He’s back at work and excited about his new album, Thirty Miles West, his first since his departure from Sony Music Nashville’s Arista roster.

Jackson’s new home is EMI Records Nashville, which released Thirty Miles West jointly with ACR, Alan’s Country Records. “They are the hottest label in town. Mike Dungan and I go back to the beginning,” said Jackson, referring to the former Capitol Records Nashville chief and now Chairman/CEO of Universal Music Nashville. “He was with Arista when I first started. It was like a little family. Everybody seemed happy and was loving their job and passionate about the music. We just had a really good feeling.”

While shopping for a new label, Jackson felt that Dungan had replicated that atmosphere at Capitol Nashville. “He was in charge, but he wasn’t like a stuffy executive,” Jackson said. “Everybody loves him and the staff seems happy. It seemed like a comfortable place, a warm environment, and everybody is excited about the music. It felt like an early Arista. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

Of course, since Jackson joined that roster, Dungan has moved over to UMG Nashville. Not to worry, though: “I feel like we’ll all end up on the same family tree eventually,” Jackson said, with a sly smile.

Signing with EMI has also reunited Jackson with Cindy Mabe, Senior VP, Marketing, Capitol Records Nashville. Mabe, who had previously worked with him at Sony, has high expectations for Thirty Miles West. “We have an incredible roster of artists, some of the most unique, pure artistic people in the genre. But we didn’t have what Alan represents. Alan has always been about the music and at times has connected with this country like no other musician has. He has been the voice of the little man, has spoken about a movement of changing times in our format, has stood up for his heroes along the way and has kept us laughing, loving and remembering.”

The new album mixes the heart-searing ballads and lively up-tempos that have populated Jackson’s career. He wrote six of its 13 tracks by himself, with Shawn Camp, Guy Clark, Terry McBride and Chris Stapleton among the others who landed songs on the project.

“I still write pretty much the same type of things that I’ve always written about, the things you go through, having daughters, watching them grow up — things that have changed in your life like that,” he said. “There’s always something you can write about.”

His daughters — Mattie, Alexandra and Dani — inspired the new upbeat tune “Her Life’s a Song.” “They’ve got their iPods and they’ll be blasting through the speakers out by the swimming pool. One minute it will be some old Country thing; they might even play one of my songs every now and then,” he said, with a smile. “And next it will be some rap thing and then some pop thing. They just listen to all that stuff. That’s pretty much the way a lot of the young people are.

“It’s no different than us coming along,” he reflected. “We listened to Southern rock, pop, Country and all different things too — jazz, R&B. ‘Her Life’s a Song’ is just me writing about what I see in them and their music.”

Jackson’s own musical history includes 13 studio albums, three greatest-hits collections, two holiday albums and a multi-Platinum gospel album, Precious Memories, released in 2006 and recently reissued. His combined sales are nearly 60 million albums worldwide, which have included 60 Top 40 tunes on the Country chart. Among those, 51 have hit the Top 10, 48 have climbed to the Top 5 and 35 went all the way to the summit. He has earned 16 CMA Awards and been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Even with all he has achieved, Jackson maintains his place in the front ranks of contemporary Country headliners. His recent single, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” resonated with radio and fans. Written by Jackson’s nephew Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, the poignant ballad whetted appetites for fans anxious to hear the new album. Other standout tracks include the beautiful love song “Everything but the Wings” (written by Jackson) and the Southern anthem “Dixie Highway” (Jackson), which inspired the album’s title as Jackson grew up 30 miles west of the Dixie Highway in Newnan, Ga.

“I started writing about growing up in the South, and of course Zac (Brown Band) and I did ‘As She’s Walking Away’ (Zac Brown and Wyatt Durrette III),” Jackson noted. “And he said he’d do another one with me. So I called him, sent him that song, he came in and sang on it. It has, like, eight verses and a bunch of picking in there. Of course, you couldn’t put it out that long as a single. We’d have to get it down to four minutes or something, which is not a problem.”

The most personal song on the album, “When I Saw You Leaving,” stemmed from his wife’s bout with cancer. “We were down in Florida and we found out on our anniversary,” he said of the staggering phone call that came on their 31st wedding anniversary, Dec. 15, 2010. “She’s been going back for scans and all that stuff. Everything is clear and looking good. That chemotherapy is pretty rough on you, but she’s doing good now. Vanderbilt (University Medical Center) did a good job.”

The recording session for “When I Saw You Leaving” was tough. “It was the hardest thing we’ve ever recorded in the studio, because the pickers knew what it was about,” Jackson said. “The first time or two we ran through it, I couldn’t hardly sing the second half, and then they’d get tore up and I couldn’t sing listening to them. Everybody was just wrung out by the time we got through with it.”

Jackson recorded Thirty Miles West at Castle Recording Studios with Keith Stegall again at the helm. Aside from Like Red on a Rose, which Alison Krauss produced in 2006, all of Jackson’s albums have had Stegall at the helm. “This is the longest relationship I ever had with an artist, and it’s been a wonderful one,” said Stegall, whose credits also include George Jones, Randy Travis, Zac Brown Band and many other artists. “We’ve shared a lot of good times together. It’s very comfortable and still so gratifying.”

Was there any extra pressure with this being Jackson’s first EMI album? “No, not really,” Stegall replied. “There’s always a little bit of pressure and concern with what you’re doing, but this was just turning the page into another chapter, continuing to do what we do. It felt natural and we both felt good about everything. It wasn’t like we were contemplating whether it would work or not work. It was, ‘Let’s go back and do what we always do because it’s worked before.’ The past is truly the key to the present.”

“We signed Alan because he still has music to be heard that connects in exactly the same way it always had,” Mabe added. “In fact, we are seeing a whole new generation discover and connect with him because he is as real as it gets. That’s the ultimate music translator. Alan can continue to both write and find the songs that will set their own standard of quality and change and grow this format.”

Jackson is grateful for the past, confident in the present and always looking toward the future. Retirement is not an option. “I don’t play enough on the road to really wear me out,” he said. “The road does get old sometimes, but as far as making the albums, that’s always fun. That’s not a job. Writing songs, finding them, going in there and singing, making a record, that’s always the best part.”

On the Web: www.AlanJackson.com

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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