As a child growing up in Newnan, Ga. (pop. 16,242), Alan Jackson sat through Sunday school class like most young boys, doodling on pieces of paper and biding his time until it was over, terrified of being called on to lead a prayer or read from the Bible.
Yet when the church worship service got underway, the singing and the sound of the big pipe organ filled the local First Baptist Church, and young Jackson was captivated.
"It was just so powerful," says Jackson, 47. "It stuck with me. Those old songs are definitely part of what I am spiritually and musically."
Just how much so is evident in his new gospel album, Precious Memories, a collection of 15 classic hymns that Jackson and his wife, Denise, who sang together in a church choir in Georgia, culled from 30 of their favorites in a Baptist hymnal. The album has been a phenomenal success. It's the only gospel recording ever to debut at No.1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. Jackson also is the first country performer to debut an album of all spiritual material at No.1 on the Top Christian Albums and Top Christian & Gospel Albums charts.
A gift for his mom
Despite its status as a commercial blockbuster, Precious Memories began as a project Jackson had no intention of selling. He recorded the songs—tried and true church-pew chestnuts like "In the Garden," "Softly and Tenderly," "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Blessed Assurance"—as a Christmas present for his mother, Ruth.
"I always wanted to do an album like this anyway, but ever since I started recording, my mama's been saying, 'Now, I know you can make a gospel album for me!'" recalls the country superstar. "I'd put it off—just lazy, you know—but she kept mentioning it and mentioning it, and I felt guilty."
The breakthrough came last year. Jackson's mother-in-law also is a fan of old-time gospel music, and when Denise's father died, Jackson sang "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" at his funeral.
After that, "Everybody started goin' on about it and beating me up even more about doing the album. So I thought I'd just go ahead and do it for my mom and give it to her for Christmas."
Throughout the CD, Jackson delivers the old traditional hymns in the natural, heartfelt manner he remembered from church as a child, though attempts to incorporate the beloved sound of the old church pipe organ proved logistically insurmountable. He and producer Keith Stegall created a stripped-down, no-frills album with mostly guitar and piano, and Jackson shot the album photos himself. For the pictures in which he appears, he set up the camera, struck a pose, and had his bus driver click the shutter.
An emotional journey
At first, the Jacksons thought they'd press about 50 copies of the album for friends and family, then considered increasing to several hundred copies in case some members of his fan club wanted it. Joe Galante, head of Sony/BMG Records, the umbrella for Jackson's own ACR label, asked to hear the album and took it to California with him on Christmas break.
"I was out running an errand, and I popped it in the rental car, and I went down Highway 101 just blaring this gospel CD," Galante recalls. "I loved it! I thought it was just such an emotional journey."
When he got back home to Nashville, Tenn., Galante coaxed Jackson to let him release the album commercially. On the surface, such a project might have seemed a risky move, since not many mainstream country superstars record gospel records any more, at least not while they're at the height of their careers. As someone who had seen Elvis Presley, Ronnie Milsap and Charley Pride record gospel albums in years past, Galante felt the current dearth of such projects suggested "we had lost part of our roots." He also saw the gospel CD as completing Jackson's honestly earned reputation as a star who, despite awards and riches, stays true to himself and keeps close to his common-man roots.
The surprising success of Precious Memories makes an impressive statement about the public's hunger for faith-based music, particularly since the album attained its commercial peak without radio airplay.
At least one radio programmer thinks broadcasters erred in their decision not to play it. "People now more than ever feel comfortable talking about their spirituality," says Stephen Giuttari, the former country program director of WYGY, a Cincinnati-based radio station. "Precious Memories is a musical masterpiece that strikes at the chord of who we are as members of God's family, and the buying public has confirmed that. We as radio programmers need to be reminded that there is always a way to promote great music within the confines of what you do at a radio station."
His songs do the talking
As with the enormous popularity of his 9/11 anthem, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," Jackson, a private person who reveals more about himself in his songs than in his interviews, is a little embarrassed by all the attention.
"He's always thought that it should be about the music," says his manager, Nancy Russell. "He doesn't feel that comfortable talking about himself, and probably doesn't understand why folks want to know more about him. He just doesn't grandstand or pound his chest. He makes his own statements in his own soft-spoken way. You can see it in everything he does."
With more than 44 million albums sold and 31 No. 1 hits, the Grammy-winning superstar mixes things up on his next albums. Due out this summer is a live CD with fishing and boating buddies George Strait and Jimmy Buffett, which the trio recorded in concert at Texas Stadium in Dallas in 2004. And this fall will bring a new studio album produced by Alison Krauss, who approached Jackson about the idea last November, when they played New York's Carnegie Hall as part of a special Grand Ole Opry appearance. The two first collaborated in 1993 when they sang a duet for Jackson's Christmas album.
The new CD won't exactly be a bluegrass album, but the three new songs he and Krauss have completed have a texture and feel that bring out Jackson's richer, deeper tones. "There's a sexiness to (his voice)," Galante says. "Very warm, almost sensual" is the way Russell describes the vocals. "They're definitely different sounding than what he's done before."
No matter how the new projects turn out, Precious Memories will always be special to the Jackson family, which today worships in a "laid-back kind of church" ("You can wear shorts or a suit," Jackson says) not far from their home in Nashville. Jackson remembers his wife and daughters, Mattie and Ali, were nervous about singing on the album, but now "they're just tickled to death with it." But Jackson's mother is the proudest of all.
"Every time I talk to her, she can't tell me enough how much she loves it," he says. "She never was a real heavy-duty country music fan, so she loves it better than any music I ever made." And, he notes with a smile curling under his trademark blonde moustache, he's released an album his mom and all her friends can listen to.
"It doesn't have a drinking or a cheatin' song on it."