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Alan Jackson opens up about family tragedies, six-year recording hiatus and the joy of making music again: 'It just about made me tear up'

Alan Jackson (Photo: Kristy Belcher)
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Not long ago, Alan Jackson, one of the best-selling music artists of all time, was at a crossroads both personally and professionally. In 2017, the Grand Ole Opry member, 17-time ACM Award-winner, and 16-time CMA Award-winner lost his beloved mother, Ruth Musick Jackson, and then in 2018, his son-in-law, Ben Selecman, died at age 28 after suffering severe head injuries in a boating accident. In the past, tragedy had inspired some of Jackson’s most iconic songs, like the 9/11 ballad “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”; “When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey),” a song he wrote for his wife of 42 years, Denise, when she was diagnosed with cancer; and “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” an ode to his late father. But after the double-whammy losses of his mother and son-in-law, Jackson put plans for next album on indefinite hold, and the recordings were shelved. Two years would pass before Jackson wanted to even try making music again.

“It took a couple of years to get through all that. I just didn't feel like writing,” Jackson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “When you're the daddy and you kind of feel like you're the head man, and you’ve got your wife and your daughters and everybody, you really hurt more for them going through it. It just took a long time for me to feel good again, to feel like I actually wanted to sit down and try to write something.”

Related: Alan Jackson’s son-in-law, Ben Selecman, dies after tragic fall

Now, after a six-year recording hiatus, Jackson returns this week with Where Have You Gone. Continuing the tradition of Jackson’s heart-on-sleeve heroes like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones, the album features one poignant track, “Where Her Heart Has Always Been (Written for Mama’s funeral with an old recording of her reading from The Bible),” that includes an archival voice recording of Jackson’s dear “Mama Ruth” reading Scripture. Another, “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” was written for his daughter Mattie’s wedding, which took place less than a year before her groom Selecman’s death. But the album, which is filled with old-school instrumentation like fiddle and steel guitar, also includes upbeat anthems like “Beer:10,” and “Livin’ on Empty.” And its title is not a reference to personal tragedies, but a wistful commentary on a bygone classic country music era that neotraditionalist Jackson describes as a “lost love.”

Below, Jackson speaks with Yahoo Entertainment about the past few difficult years, the joys of making music again, and his fears for the future of country music.

Yahoo Entertainment: I know you're not doing too many interviews, so thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I also know how significant Where Have You Gone is for you, because obviously it has been six years since the last album, and this album is so personal. What made this the right time to return to recording?

Alan Jackson: Well, I didn't delay it on purpose. We just had a few setbacks there in the last few years, in my personal life. It kind of slowed things down for a couple of years. And then by the time I got ready to get in the studio last spring, the coronavirus really shut everything down again. So it wasn't till late in the fall [that we recorded the album]. But I knew it had been quite a few years, and I finally felt like I was ready to try to write again and get it done.

As you say, the last few years have been difficult. You've experienced some tragic losses, some of which is addressed on the album. I know you were working on some music during this time. Was there anything you were working on then that made it onto this record, or did you shelve everything and then start over?

Well, when my mother died, I wrote that song on the album for her and for her funeral, and I went in the studio to do a little demo of it. I ended up cutting a couple of other tracks for when we thought we'd be going in the studio later that year. And then that's when my first daughter, who had gotten married a year before… her husband died actually right before their first anniversary. That kind of put a halt on everything for a while, and so those tracks kind of lay there for two or three years till we got back in the studio. So yes, there were a couple of tracks written and recorded earlier that we finally got to include on this album.

I'm so sorry for everything your family has been through. I'm wondering in particular if the song written for Mattie's wedding is hard to revisit, if it has taken on any new meaning now that you’ve released it to the world.

It's definitely made a little more difficult. I mean, when she got married, that was our [family’s] first wedding and she asked me to write a father/daughter dance song, which I tried to do. And I told all three of my daughters, “I’ll write this one song and all three of y’all have to use it, I’m not going to write three songs!” [laughs] And so she used it, and then my second daughter got married last summer and she used it as well, so that was nice. I think for the first couple of years it was really hard, but now we’re finally getting over some of the hurt, and in some ways it brings back good memories now. So, I think it was a good thing that the song happened. Now we have that memory, and we can use it for when my last baby gets married.

How did Mattie feel about you putting out that song? Did you consult with her about it beforehand?

Oh, yeah. I spoke to all three of the girls about it. I said, “Look, I wrote this song for y'all and your kids. If you want to use it, then I don't want to put it on this record, but the label and everybody's clamoring, saying it needs to be on there.” And I got their approval before I put it out, because I felt like it was their song. If they want to share it with the world, then that’s fine. And they were happy about it.

Does releasing such personal songs bring you some sense of peace? I imagine it does for listeners, because anyone who has lost a loved one can derive comfort from these songs.

Well, I've written a lot of songs in my career about things that happened in my life — good and bad and happy and sad and all that stuff. A lot of them are real personal, but I've always tried to write them where they're just not about me. Like that song for my mama, other people could play that for somebody they lost as well, at that person’s funeral, if they wanted to. I'm glad that they aren’t so personal that other people can't even relate to them. And it has always been that way. I've wrote one 20 years ago when my daddy died, a song called “Drive,” and I've had so many people relate to that song as well — and they didn't even really know that it was for my daddy who died.

Please tell me about the audio at the beginning of “Where Her Heart Has Always Been.” Where that was sourced from, and what is the significance of the Bible passage that your mother reads?

That was so, so sweet. We had already finished the album pretty much last fall, and around Christmastime one of my sisters sent this recording to us that they had found, I guess from a few years ago when Mom was still doing pretty good. They had her read the Christmas story from the Bible and some other things, just to have a recording of her, and they sent that for Christmas. And I said, “Man, that's so cool.” So, we tried to pull out a line that wasn't so Christmassy in there that would work. I was just so happy to get that. And I just think it makes the song.

Last month at the ACM Awards, you performed a medley of “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and “You'll Always Be My Baby.” That must have been emotional for you.

I was just hoping to get through it! It was tough at first. … But it was a sweet combination, to be able to pull the song out from years ago about my daddy and tie it together with a new one about my daughter.

So, as we were discussing, you took a relatively long break between albums for various personal reasons. How did you get your artistic mojo back?

I don't know that there was any lightning that struck. It just started coming to me. But during all that time, I was always scribbling down hooks and song ideas and melodies. And luckily with the phones, now I can sing a melody [into the phone] and I won't forget it 10 minutes later! So last summer, I really wanted to write again, so I pulled that phone out and started flipping through those old videos and audio recordings, and I had about 200 to 300 song ideas in there! I had to sit down, trying to sort through all that and figure out which ones I wanted to write to.

Was there ever a time, before you started working on this album, when you considered retiring for good?

I didn't really worry about it one way or the other. If I hadn't ever made another album, I just wouldn't have made it. But when it felt right, it felt right. I think I would have been happy either way. I've had a crazy career and I'm surprised I still write songs now anyway, after all this time. But I tell you what, when [longtime producer] Keith [Stegall] and I went in, I said, “Man, we're going to make a country album. I don't have to worry about radio anymore; they probably won’t play me anyway. I'm just going to make what I like — and what I know my fans like.” And we went in there and I brought these old pickers back that played of most my records, and they played some of the coolest tracks that we’ve played in 30 years. When Keith sent me those first two or three cuts that were kind of half-done, it just about made me tear up. I had to pull over. I was so proud, and so glad to hear some real country music. … I just sat there, and then I told my wife, “These songs need to come with a six-pack of beer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.” [laughs]

That actually brings me to another line of questioning I wanted to get to. I'll be honest that when I found out the album was called Where Have You Gone, I assumed the title was a reference to the losses you’ve recently experienced. But then I realized it’s actually a reference to the classic country music genre, right?

Yeah, but it's not an attack on what's going on. I mean, there's good music out there. There's just really not much real country anymore, and I'm such a fan of that. I mean, I came to Nashville carrying my torch for country music in 1985, and it was the same thing then — there just weren’t many young artists trying to keep it going. And I loved it. I was a young man and I loved real, hard country. There’s still young guys and girls today that love that kind of music, but it's just slowly fading away, and I don't hear hardly any of it left in the new music anymore. And it's not that to say that everyone has to sound like Hank Williams. I'm not criticizing. It's just my personal feeling that it's going away. I feel like it's like a lost love. And that's what this [title track] kind of represents.

Are there any new trends in country music that you think are positive or encouraging ones?

I confess, I don't know if I'm that educated about all of that. … I'm pretty isolated! [laughs]

Is that a good place to be in? You mentioned that you’re in a position where you don't have to chase after radio play.

Well, I've had like sixty-something singles that have been top five, top 10, or No. 1. I can't remember them all. [Editor’s note: Jackson has had 35 No. 1 country hits.] And I'm not bragging, I've just had such a wonderful career that I can't hardly fuss about not getting played now. I'm 62 years old. I've had a wonderful run. It’s time for everybody else to be on the radio. If they play me, I'm happy, and if they don't, it won’t break my heart. It is a good place to be in, as far as allowing me to relax and just worry more about making art and creating than about being commercial. I was thinking that way when I made this record. … Yes, sometimes it’s hard not to get those accolades, I guess, but I feel like I've been blessed and I should just enjoy making music now.

I am happy that you’re making music again. So, are we going to get to hear any of those other 200 to 300 songs on your phone?

Well now, I’ve got 200 or 300 ideas and melodies started. They're not all complete. Sometimes I get an idea and sing it into the phone, and next day I listen back and it sounds like crap! [laughs] So it just depends on where my head is that day. I don't really have any plans. It'll just happen the way it's going to happen. I guess if I come up with some good songs that are worth recording now, I'm sure we'll get in the studio again. And if I get to where I can’t write anymore, we'll try to find somebody else's song. We'll see what happens. But I'm sure my fans would prefer me to come up with another album a little sooner than six years, yeah!

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