After Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson was the most popular male country singer of the '90s. An heir to the new traditionalist movement of the '80s, Jackson's approach was rooted in classic honky tonk yet remained comfortably within the contemporary mainstream. Jackson's hallmark was consistency -- he wrote many of his own hits, and his way with a hook was part of the reason he never really hit a commercial dry spell, even into the new millennium. He also projected a modest, wholesome, down-to-earth image that made him one of the best-liked stars of his era, even apart from his music. The total package resulted in an astounding 20 number one singles and 20 more Top Ten hits, all in the first 12 years of his career.
Jackson was born in the small town of Newnan, Georgia, on October 17, 1958. He grew up singing gospel music, both in church and at home with his family, and as a teenager he performed locally as part of a country duo. He left school to work and married his high-school sweetheart, Denise, who worked as an airline stewardess. During the early '80s, Jackson held down a series of odd jobs -- car salesman, construction worker, forklift operator at K-Mart -- while playing the local club circuit with his band, Dixie Steel, and working on his songwriting. He caught his big break when Denise found country-pop star Glen Campbell waiting for a flight and gave him a copy of her husband's demo tape; Campbell in turn gave her contact information for his music publishing company, and the Jacksons picked up and moved to Nashville shortly thereafter. Campbell's company suggested that Alan take a year and hone his songwriting even further, and so he worked more odd jobs -- including in the mail room at The Nashville Network, plus some session singing -- before finally signing on as a staff writer. By night, he performed in Nashville clubs and recorded an updated demo with songwriter/producer Keith Stegall. In 1989, Jackson became the first artist signed to Arista's new country division.
Jackson's debut album, Here in the Real World, was issued in 1990 and became a platinum-selling hit on the strength of four Top Five hits: the title cut, "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," "Wanted," and the first of many chart-toppers, "I'd Love You All Over Again." He shot to full-fledged superstardom with the follow-up, 1991's Don't Rock the Jukebox, whose title track was an inescapable number one smash that year. The record produced three more number ones ("Someday," "Dallas," "Love's Got a Hold on You") and also contained one of Jackson's signature songs, the Top Five "Midnight in Montgomery," which told the story of a visit to Hank Williams' grave. Also in 1991, Jackson co-wrote several songs with Randy Travis for Travis' High Lonesome album. With 1992's A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'Bout Love), Jackson took his place as not only one of the most popular stars of his time, but also one of the best. The number one smash "Chattahoochee" became another signature tune, and Jackson also topped the charts with "She's Got the Rhythm (And I Got the Blues)," while scoring three more Top Five hits from the album -- which became his first to top the country LP charts.
In late 1993, Jackson released the stopgap holiday album Honky Tonk Christmas, which actually avoided standards in favor of lesser-known material. He returned in 1994 with Who I Am, his second straight number one country album, which gave him a staggering four number one singles: a cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," the music biz satire "Gone Country" (a dig at executives hopping on the commercial country bandwagon), "Livin' on Love," and "I Don't Even Know Your Name." In only his fifth year on the scene, Jackson was able to issue The Greatest Hits Collection in 1995 and scored hits with three newly minted songs: a cover of George Jones' "Tall Tall Trees," "I'll Try" (both number ones), and "Home." It took The Greatest Hits Collection only a year to sell over three million copies. And, of course, Jackson was far from done. Issued in 1996, Everything I Love became his fourth straight release to top the country album charts, and it gave him five Top Ten hits, including the number ones "Little Bitty" (a Tom T. Hall cover) and "There Goes." The 1998 follow-up, High Mileage, also hit number one and became Jackson's highest-charting album on the pop side, reaching number four; it contained four more Top Tens, including the chart-topping "Right on the Money."
Jackson paid tribute to his favorite country singers of the past on the easygoing 1999 covers album Under the Influence, which featured material by Jones, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Jimmy Buffett, Hank Williams, Jr., Don Williams (the chart-topping "It Must Be Love"), and Jim Ed Brown (the Top Ten "Pop a Top"), among others. Although Under the Influence just missed hitting number one, 2000's When Somebody Loves You returned Jackson to the top of the album charts and gave him another number one in "Where I Come From." That year, he also teamed up with George Strait for the duet "Murder on Music Row," a strident defense of traditional country in the face of a new wave of crossover stars.
The year 2001 brought an enormous hit in "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," a poignant attempt to make sense of the aftermath of September 11; rush-released after an awards show premiere, the song rocketed to the top of the country charts and also became his first single to crack the pop Top 30. It was followed by the full-length Drive in 2002, which spawned another number one in "Drive (For Daddy Gene)," a tribute to Jackson's late father. The album was Jackson's seventh to top the country charts, and it also became his first to top the pop charts. His second greatest-hits collection appeared in 2003 and featured the crossover hit "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," a duet with Jimmy Buffett. A year later the well-received What I Do proved to be the purest country album from Jackson in years. Precious Memories, released in 2006, was a collection of 15 hymns originally recorded as a Christmas gift for his mother. Later that same year, Jackson released Like Red on a Rose, a mellow Alison Krauss production. Live at Texas Stadium, a concert set with George Strait and Jimmy Buffett, followed in 2007.
A new studio effort, Good Time, appeared in 2008, followed by another studio outing, Freight Train, in 2010. Jackson left Arista Records Nashville after two decades to sign a distribution deal with EMI Records for his new label, Alan's Country Records (ACR). Jackson's 17th studio album, Thirty Miles West, appeared on ACR under the new deal in 2012. Although the album generated no major hit singles -- "Long Way to Go" topped out at 24, "So You Don't Have to Love Me Anymore" at 25 -- the album debuted at number one on the Billboard country charts and number two on the Billboard 200. Early in 2013, Jackson released his second album for ACR: a sequel to his spiritual album from 2006 called Precious Memories, Vol. 2. Later that same year, Jackson released his first-ever bluegrass album, aptly titled The Bluegrass Album. Two years later, Jackson returned with Angels and Alcohol, an album consisting primarily of originals and produced by Keith Stegall. After its release, he celebrated his 25th anniversary with the compilation Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story and the Keepin' It Country tour. ~ Steve Huey