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On Nov. 7, 2001, when Alan Jackson debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” live at the Country Music Association Awards, he knew the performance would be an important and unifying moment for a nation still deep in mourning after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93. But he never expected that 20 years later, the song would still have such an impact.
“That [CMAs performance] made me very proud, but I thought [the song] would probably go away in a couple of years and I wouldn't be playing it on the road anymore,” the country superstar admits to Yahoo Entertainment. “But now after all these years, it's kind of just evolved — in what the song is about, anyway. It's all about faith, hope, and love — not just about 9/11.”
Jackson had written “Where Were You” as a way to process his own grief after the 9/11 attacks, although he found it difficult to express his emotions right away. But after a few weeks, his creative floodgates finally opened. “Looking back, I guess I just didn't want to forget how I felt on that day and how I knew other people felt,” he muses.
On Oct. 28, 2001 — barely more than a week before the 2001 CMAs ceremony — Jackson suddenly “woke up in the middle of the night” at 4 a.m. and, as he recalls, “That chorus was coming out of my mouth, pretty much just like I wrote it. And back then I had a little DAT recorder, and I recorded it so I wouldn’t forget the melody and words. … And then the next day I started piecing all those verses together, all the thoughts I'd had or visuals I'd had. It was a Sunday — I remember because when I started writing it, my wife and girls had gone off to Sunday school — and I finished it that day. … Those verses were just straight out of my mind, all those visual images I’d had watching the news, all the stories about how people were dealing with it. And there it was.”
Jackson stresses that he was “reluctant to record” the song at first, “because I didn't even want to write a song like that. I knew a lot of people would try to write a song [about 9/11], and there's nothing wrong with that, but I just didn't want to look like [I was] taking advantage of the situation commercially. I didn't want to do that. But this song just came out of nowhere, like God sent it to me or something.” It was Jackson’s wife Denise and longtime producer Keith Stegall who encouraged him to go in the studio to lay down an official recording, and once the brass at his record label, Arista, heard the result, “The next thing you know, it was out,” recalls Jackson. “And then it was this big, big song that seemed to help people somewhat.”
Jackson was originally supposed to perform his more upbeat single “Where I Come From” at the 2001 CMA Awards, but when his manager played “Where Were You” for a group of Country Music Association executives, their response was so emotional and intense that those plans were quickly scrapped. Jackson instead performed his new 9/11 tribute at the CMAs with an orchestra, and he received a standing ovation. The next morning, radio stations across the country were playing the live recording pulled straight from the awards show’s CBS broadcast, before Arista had even manufactured a commercial single to meet the sudden demand. (The single officially came out on Nov. 26, 2001.) Jackson confesses that he had — and still has — mixed feelings about the song’s massive success.
“It was a tough performance for me,” Jackson says as he reflects on the 2001 CMAs. “You know, just the whole idea of releasing the song was a little bit tough. I wasn't sure I wanted to put it out, but everybody convinced me that it was the thing to do ... and in retrospect, I agree with that. But it's hard to go out there and sing anything new, and the topic made it difficult, too. I just remember — other than being relieved that I got through it — that I just felt very proud that it seemed to cause a reaction in people. I was proud that I got to do it, and that it seemed like it meant something.”
Jackson has continued to perform “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” over the past two decades, including on PBS’s A Capitol Fourth special this year, and he admits that it’s still difficult for him to power through the song. Once of his toughest performances was at the 9/11 memorial event held at the Pentagon in 2002. “There were a lot of survivors who had terrible burns and things, and I remember performing for them and their families and they still looked kind of rough, and it was just really hard singing for those people,” he says. “But at the same time, it makes you feel good, because they really appreciated it. And I’ve sung in New York City in front of the buildings that fell and for some of the police and fire people up there. Really, almost every night in my show, when I do that [song], people just seem so touched. It's an emotional, emotional moment.”
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” was never officially sold as a benefit single; a representative for Jackson tells Yahoo Entertainment that “there was not a charity tied to the ‘Where Were You’ release,” while Jackson’s management told Entertainment Weekly back in 2002 that the singer had “no official ties to any nonprofit group” and preferred “to make his donations privately.” As a result, Jackson received some backlash for the single (South Park was particularly vicious), but he insists, “I don't remember getting criticized for anything about it. I will say all I ever heard was people's praise. It almost was uncomfortable. I'm not really big on chasing that spotlight, and it just put a lot of tension on me for a while and made me feel like it was hard to follow. It's like they put you up on a pedestal, and I kept saying, ‘Look, I’m just a songwriter. I'm just a singer. It’s just a simple song. I'm not trying to get up on my soapbox. I’m just an old country guy who writes and sings songs.’”
Just as Jackson avoids publicly sharing the details of his charitable donations or getting on his “soapbox,” he avoided political rhetoric on “Where Were You,” which is probably why the song has endured and evolved after 20 years. Rather than write a 9/11 revenge anthem, like fellow country stars Toby Keith (“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”) or Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”), Jackson — who actually described himself as “not a real political man” in “Where Were You” — focused his observational lyrics on U.S. citizens’ personal, private, relatable reactions to the tragedy, singing: “Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow?/Go out and buy you a gun?/Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watchin'/And turn on I Love Lucy reruns?” And Jackson still prefers to remain neutral, even in these current politically charged times.
“Everybody's got a right to say what they want to say, but I learned a long time ago that just because you're a celebrity — whether you're a singer or basketball player or actor or whatever you are — that doesn’t make you all sudden a politician or a scientist,” he explains. “I mean, I'm sure there are some very educated and intelligent entertainers, but I feel like most of them don't have enough information or enough education [to espouse their views]. And it affects so many people, because so many people listen to them, and sometimes they may not be saying the right thing. I always felt like music is more entertainment. I know there are songs like mine that heal people and help people, but mostly people just want to be entertained.”
And so, while Jackson knows that “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” will always be his signature song — it respectively won the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association awards for Song of the Year and Single of the Year, as well a Grammy Award for Best Country Song and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year — he remains humble as he reflects on its legacy.
“That song was just a gift. I've never felt I could take credit for writing it,” Jackson insists. “It may feel great, but I can't take credit for it. It's just right out of the Bible.”
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