Alan Jackson chuckles when he describes his childhood as resembling the wholesome, close-knit family life depicted on the 1970s TV show The Waltons. The lanky, easy-going country music star is used to other people laughing along when he says it, too.
But he’s not exaggerating.
An auto mechanic’s son, Jackson grew up outside Newnan, Ga., (pop. 16,242) on a nine-acre plot owned by his grandfather, a carpenter who raised chickens and cows. And like TV character John Boy Walton, he was surrounded by family. Young Alan lived with his parents and four sisters in a small house on the property. An aunt and grandmother lived right behind them, while an uncle and his family were neighbors, too. Nearly his whole extended family was within walking distance.
“We weren’t way out in the country, but we were rural,” Jackson says. “I didn’t know how unusual it was to grow up surrounded by that much family until I got older. It was different. I realize now that a big part of who I am comes from growing up the way I did.”
The values engrained in him can be found throughout his songs, which draw on the details of tight-knit family life and small-town escapades. Early songs like Home and Livin’ On Love were specifically about his parents. Chattahoochee was about hanging out at his hometown river as a teenager, while I’d Love You All Over Again was about his wife Denise, his high school sweetheart. And Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow was about struggling to get discovered while leading bands in honky tonks and bars.
Everything, he says, can be traced back to how he and his wife, who lived nearby, grew up. “You ever seen that movie Stand By Me, about a bunch of boys in a small town in the ’60s?” he asks in his unhurried drawl. “That’s exactly the way I was. We’d put a quarter on the railroad track just to wait and see the train run over it. If we weren’t messing around on the tracks, we were riding our bikes into the little four-square center of town where they had these small shops. There wasn’t a lot of crime or a lot of worries. I think all that played into who I am.”
Jackson addressed the quiet, steady influence of his late father, who died three years ago, on his recent hit, Drive (for Daddy Gene). In it, he tells of his father’s patient way of teaching him responsibility. By the end of the song, he shows how he’s trying to pass on similar lessons to his three daughters, 13-year-old Mattie, 10-year-old Ali, and 6-year-old Dani.
“I think I had really good parents who were very caring people, very honest and humble people,” Jackson says in a solemn, tender voice. “When you’re raised that way, it stays with you most of your life. Of course, you don’t realize how special that is until you’re older. We didn’t have much money, but we were always happy. I’ve always had an easy, comfortable life.”
However, Jackson has known difficulties as an adult too. He and his wife struggled through their initial years in Nashville, Tenn. For a while, he worked for little pay in the mailroom of The Nashville Network, while the couple lived in a cramped basement apartment. He spent weekends traveling the Southeast playing small bars while trying to attract attention from Nashville music executives.
But once he got his break, it didn’t take long for family life to become far better. His debut album, 1989’s Here In the Real World, sold a million copies in its first year. And by the end of the year, Denise was pregnant with their first child.
“My wife grew up real similar to the way I did,” he relates. “So we pretty much like the same things. Even though we’ve got money, big houses, big cars, and all that stuff, I still go in there and make cornbread from scratch to eat with my black-eyed peas. I haven’t gone Hollywood, as they say, just because I’ve made a little money.”
The couple has worked to make sure their children get washed in the same values, despite the more luxurious surroundings. “We have so many people tell us how sweet our children are,” he beams. “I think at first people are surprised my children are that way, considering the lifestyle most people think we live. I think they’re surprised when they get to know us and see that we’re the people we are—which is the same way we were before we had all this.”
Even their family outings carry on certain traditions they acquired while growing up in Georgia. “We didn’t vacation much when I was a kid, but we always went out to the lake in the summer,” Jackson says. “And now boats are still my biggest hobby. Getting out on the water is something I’ve loved my whole life. Most of the activities we do as a family involve a lake or an ocean. Had my Daddy been able to, he would’ve done the same thing I’m doing now.”
Jackson openly admits he and his wife had to endure a difficult period in the mid-’90s, when the whirlwind of fame led the singer to lose touch with his priorities. “Denise and I have been together for 20-something years now, and we’ve been through a lot, and things have really reached a great place with us,” he says. “For the last 10 years or so now, things have been more comfortable than they’ve ever been. I think that’s just maturing and realizing what you have that is good in your life. I understand more about what it takes to be a man—a good man. And I’m a lot happier that way.”
Jackson drew on some of his own life-changing experiences when writing his award-winning song Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) about the Sept. 11 tragedy. When he talks about dusting off the Bible and realizing the significance of spending time with those you love, he was drawing on his own days of reckoning from when his life went awry.
“My life had been heading in that direction for several years anyway,” he says. “I think 9-11 made us realize some things about our own lives and our country, and they were things that I’d been thinking about for a while. I had been maturing a little bit, and with the children growing up, my priorities had become different. I think I’m in a good place in my life, and it’s not because of the music success as much as it is having a good life at home.”
His success is undeniable, however. Fourteen years into his career, he’s more popular than ever—a rarity in modern music’s here-today, gone-tomorrow world. Jackson has sold more than 40 million albums, and his recent hit, It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, a good-time duet with pal Jimmy Buffett from Jackson’s just-released Greatest Hits Volume II, has become his 30th No. 1 hit.
Jackson says the greatest part of his success is how it affords him time at home. He now flies in a private jet to and from his concerts, usually leaving for home after a show rather than spending a night in a hotel. His manager and booking agent know that his priority rests with being home as much as possible, and they book his schedule with that in mind.
“You know, I probably work less now than I ever have in my whole life,” he admits. “I’m home with my family 90 percent of the time, or I’m out somewhere with my family doing something fun. I write my songs, I do my albums and shows. That’s it, and it doesn’t take that much time. With my career, it seems the less I do, the better everything goes. You can’t hardly beat that.”