Alan Jackson Talks 50 Years of CMAs and ‘Real Country’

photo courtesy of CMA World
photo courtesy of CMA World

Where were you… when you first heard “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”? Chances are you were watching the CMA Awards of 2001, where Alan Jackson unexpectedly premiered his 9/11-themed song, just a couple of months after the events that inspired the soul-searching ballad.

And if you’re a country music fan, you remember the legacy of Jackson’s even more spontaneous appearance on the show two years prior to that. George Jones, nominated for Song of the Year for “Choices,” was invited to sing that number on the telecast — for one minute. He turned that down as patronizing, but then superfan Jackson made sure it appeared on the show anyway, interrupting his own performance of “Pop a Top” to serenade Jones and the other home viewers with a snippet of “Choices.”

With the CMAs’ 50th anniversary being celebrated with a host of country veterans on tonight’s telecast, there was no one better to ask for a look back than Jackson, who can claim a stunning 81 nominations and 16 wins over the years, including three trophies for Entertainer of the Year. We know the humble Jackson as a man of few words sometimes already, so there was no prying out of him what form his appearance will take on the show. But it was inevitable that this hardcore neotraditionalist wouldn’t be shy about reaffirming his belief that a lot of the country being celebrated nowadays isn’t “real” country.

YAHOO MUSIC: There are two CMA moments of yours that stand out to everyone. Are they the same ones for you?

ALAN JACKSON: Gosh, I don’t know how many times I’ve performed on there. We had a lot of great times on there, but I don’t think anything that’s gonna jump out and bypass those — the “Choices” thing for George Jones and “Where Were You.” It’s hard to believe it’s the 50th anniversary and I’ve been doing it for half of that time now — 25 years or more. The early years were when it was so overwhelming because at that time I was a young artist and a lot of my heroes were still on the show: Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and people like that when they were still a big part of it.

You’re on the show this year. What will you be doing?

Well, I think they told us not to talk about it much, because it was kind of a special event and they didn’t want to give too much away. But even though it’s the 50th anniversary show, it’s not about the 50 years. It’s still the CMA Awards honoring the best artists and music of this past year, and I hope that’s what they really do. I think it’s important to recognize the 50 years, but I wouldn’t want to be singing a song on there and some young artist who just had a #1 record would be fussing: “They’ve got old Alan Jackson on there and I can’t even get to do my new song!” [Laughs.] But I think it’s great that they’re including a few of the acts that have been such a big part of the CMAs for all these years. I think George Strait and myself are the two that have been nominated and won the most awards of about anybody, so it was nice of them to include us.

Oftentimes in advance of the show they’re announcing some stars from the pop and rock worlds who are guests, like Meghan Trainor, but that hasn’t happened this year. Maybe the 50th anniversary show has enough veterans in it that they don’t have time to bring the pop stars in?

Yeah, they may play some real country music. But I understand the dang television station trying to get the ratings with whatever they think is gonna prop it up, with some big event with some other type of artist on there. Yeah, hopefully it’ll be a good country music show for a change.

Are there any young artists you would champion as doing it the right way, the way George Jones championed you?

There’s a lot of the music that’s not really country music and it’s not my style of music, even though lot of them are good artists and good writers. But there have been some come along in the last five or six years, like Zac Brown and those guys — they’re not hard country, but they’re real pickers and the real thing. Just like Chris Stapleton is so hot right now. Chris opened shows for me last year for nothing before he had the big move. I had recorded some songs of his, too, on an album or two, and I knew about him when he was a bluegrass singer. I love Chris because he’s the real thing. I mean, he’s not real country, either — it’s more like bluesy rock — but I like it because it’s real. There’s not much hard country stuff out there on the radio that’s new. But I think there are people wanting to do it and trying to do it. Even that little girl Kacey Musgraves, I really like her because she’s doing her thing. That’s that kind of old-school country sound, and she had a hard time getting played, but she said she’s not changing what she does to get played on the radio, and I respect her for that.

How about Jon Pardi?

Yeah, Jon toured with me last year on several dates, and when I heard his album, I told this girl at the label I knew that that was the first album I’d heard in a while that I thought had some good [original] songwriting and stuff that sounded like it had some roots of country music in it.

Did “Forever Country” seem like a good idea when they brought it to you?

Well, when they first send the idea, I thought, “Boy, that sounds like a trainwreck!” [Laughs.] But it actually turned out better than I thought. And I know it’s very hard when you’ve got artists from 50 years you’re trying to squeeze into three minutes. You hardly get to sing a line or two. But I think they did as good a job as they could with it, trying to get everybody in. It actually squeezes all together pretty good. Somebody spent some time weaving that together.

You just paid tribute to Randy Travis at the gathering where he shocked everyone by singing.

That was cool. I’ve been around him a little bit, and he can’t even hardly stand up or talk or anything, so you wouldn’t expect it. Of course that induction, I was glad to be a part of that. Randy was one of the big reasons I probably got my shot. When I moved to Nashville in September ’85, that’s right when his first song was going up the charts. He took off like wildfire then, and he was the first young real country singer to do that in a while, so he probably paved the way for a lot of us. When I got going in ’90, he’d already been out five or six years. I got to be on his tour. He was really big then and that was huge for me. We had a lot of #1 songs out of stuff we wrote together on the road that tour.

It’s interesting to play “what if” and think about whether there would have been an Alan Jackson on the charts if Randy Travis hadn’t preceded you.

Somebody else may have come along, I mean, Keith Whitley was right in there. Of course Keith died so young, but I think if he had lived he would have made a bigger footprint too, in the early ‘90s. But Randy was unique. He was a real singer and his whole life and character and everything just fit the whole profile.

Talk about the Precious Memories special collection that Wal-Mart has as an exclusive.

They wanted to pout the two Precious Memories albums together and add a couple other things on there and repackage it. My wife wrote a book years ago, back when we were having our spell there, and I recorded a couple that were in her little book package. Wrote one song for it and then sang a song that I sang at our wedding in 1979. Since they were both kind of faith-type songs, they put ‘em on the new package. Nobody hardly ever heard those, unless they bought the book.

Going from hymns to bars…

That sounds like a song title!

In Nashville on Lower Broad, your new branded place, AJ’s Good Time Bar, seems like it opened in record time. It was announced in August and open in early October.

Well, we didn’t do much but sweep it out and hang my name up on it. I just wanted a real honky-tonk down on Broadway. I’ve wanted it for years and we just never have found the right spot. I just wanted a little shotgun building like they have on Broadway. We ran up on this place that’s about two doors down from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, right across from Tootsie’s, and you’re looking at the roof of the Ryman, so it’s a perfect spot. I kept hearing people say they were having a hard time finding real country music again down on Broadway, so a lot of people appreciate it. It’s only been open for about three weeks and it’s been staying packed. We put bands in there playing real country, and not just old stuff from the ‘50s or ‘60s; we’re playing that and the ‘80s and ‘90s too.

“There’s a New Kid in Town,” the Christmas song of yours that everybody remembers, has been revived. You’re the guest singer on the new version on Chris Young’s album, just as you had Keith Whitley on yours.

Yeah. The difference is, I was actually alive on his duet! Keith had already been dead, so it was kind of tricky getting both our voices on there, on the cut that I did [in 1993, after Whitley’s 1989 death]. Yeah, I sang it a month or two ago. Chris has got a good, deep voice, and he likes [real] country stuff, so it was nice of him to ask me to be on there.