Garth Brooks had the sizzle. George Strait had the “aw, shucks” charm and humility, not to mention one of the more accessible catalogs in country music. Dwight Yoakam had almost indie-like cred in certain circles. Johnny Cash was a badass; George Jones perhaps equally so. The list goes on.
Country music, after all, is littered with an array of musicians who rose to fame via a number of factors. Some, like Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn, did so by penning some of the best songs in country's canon. Others, like Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan, blended catchy tunes with good looks and charm. As for Alan Jackson, well, he’s a tale unto itself.
Jackson, who returns to headline his 23rd Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo gig on Saturday, is one of the most popular country musicians in history. He has sold millions upon millions of records, charted enough No. 1 singles to fill multiple greatest-hits collections, headlined arenas and stadiums around the world, and is universally regarded among the biggest superstars in the annals of country music.
And yet, Alan Jackson feels a little short-changed when it comes to lionizing the all-time greats in country music. Take Billboard, for instance. While not quite gospel, the magazine is widely regarded as one of music's foremost authorities. So when it released a list of the all-time greatest country artists of the modern era, it was a little surprising that of the 30 musicians listed, Jackson was nowhere to be found.
No disrespect to folks like Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift, both of whom made the list, but to consider them peers of Jackson is pure fallacy. Chesney, while entertaining in his own right, is basically Luke Bryan with a beach fetish. As for Swift, she is arguably the biggest pop star on the planet not named Beyoncé. Of course, therein lies the issue: Taylor Swift hasn’t been a country singer in damn near a decade.
But back to Jackson, who has only ranked among the most notable names in country for the better part of the past three decades. It all began with 1990’s Here in the Real World, which charted four singles, three of which landed inside the top three. Jackson’s streak of success only continued from there, when his Don’t Rock the Jukebox — the album that made him a bona fide superstar — landed five singles on the Billboard country charts. Four of those singles, including legendary tunes like the title track and “Someday,” reached the top spot.
The '90s featured more dominance from Jackson, who finished the decade with 16 No. 1 singles, seven platinum albums and enough CMA awards to fill multiple trophy cases. Sure, he wasn’t exactly Garth Brooks – who ruled not only the country charts but the pop charts as well, for the better part of the decade – but Jackson certainly ranked among country's more noteworthy artists of the decade.
However, his greatest contribution to country music has nothing to do with record sales or sold-out tours. Rather, it had to do primarily with the fear and confusion that ran rampant across our nation in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Look, it’s no secret acknowledging that country music hasn’t exactly been a bastion of measured thought over the years. Whether it was Toby Keith insisting we put a boot in people’s asses as retaliation for 9/11, or Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines going rogue on then-President George W. Bush, country artists have often struggled to find common political ground.
Jackson changed all that with one simple tune, 2001’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?” Jackson wrote the song shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; it was released over the following Thanksgiving weekend. Rather than call for violence, or really even take a political stance at all, Jackson instead wrote a song that conveyed confusion and mixed emotions.
"I didn't want to write a patriotic song," Jackson said at the time. "And I didn't want it to be vengeful, either. But I didn't want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.”
The lyrics convey as such, particularly the chorus:
I'm just a singer of simple songs
I'm not a real political man
I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love
There are religious overtones to be sure, but as country songs go, this is about as apolitical as it gets. The song was a hit, not only on country radio but on pop stations as well. Critics and listeners alike lauded Jackson for capturing the spirit of a nation dealing with tragedy. Even today, the song is regarded as among the definitive songs to address 9/11.
And that’s the point. Sure, Alan Jackson may not immediately stand out alongside many of his contemporaries, but that’s due mostly to his understated nature — which is also how he has somewhat quietly carved out one of the greatest careers in country music history. It’s also the reason he may very well be the most underappreciated country artist of all time.
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