How his wife’s cancer changed Alan Jackson’s life
By Janis Fontaine
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Two years ago, Alan Jackson’s wife turned his life upside down with three words: I have cancer.
“It made us change our whole outlook on life, what we value and what’s important,” Jackson said of his 33-year marriage to Denise. “That’s what happens in situations like that.”
The country superstar, who married her at 19, said he would have gladly traded places. “Especially with her. She’s such a good woman. I’ve always been the trouble-maker and feel like I should have been the one to get it. It was some shocker, and I’m relieved the last couple checkups have been clear. I’m hoping it’ll stay that way.”
The health crisis also led Jackson, who performs at Cruzan Amphitheatre on Saturday, to write the song “When I Saw You Leaving,” which appears on “Thirty Miles West,” his most recent album.
The ballad examines the emotions you go through when you get a diagnosis: Anger, shock, fear, hope and finally rejoicing, when the news is good.
“Denise said she thought there’s a lot of people that would like to hear that. Once you go through that, you meet so many people that have experienced a lot of the same feelings.”
And though Jackson often plays new songs for Denise, he didn’t with this one. She didn’t hear it until it had been recorded, which proved more difficult than most. It took Jackson and the band several tries in the studio to get through the whole song. Everyone was crying.
“I didn’t even tell her I wrote it,” Jackson said. “It was hard to listen to. She cried like most people do, but I think she felt good about it.”
The diagnosis encouraged the family to make a few changes. They sold their Jupiter Island home a few months ago because they rarely used it any longer.
“I think it affected the decision to sell the Florida house. I guess we always assumed we’d end up living there half the year once the children were gone. I’ve still got my boats down there and we’ve had a house on the beach for more than 10 years. As the girls got older and they started taking up their own lives, we just didn’t get down there much. The last few years we’ve hardly been down there at the house. I’d come down and stay on my boat and go fishing. The house was more for the girls.”
Their oldest daughter, Mattie, is finished with college, Ali headed off to college in August, and Dani’s halfway through high school. But even when they’re empty-nesters, the Jacksons will likely still hang their cowboy hats in Music City. “Denise likes where we’re at in Nashville and I don’t know that we’ll ever leave. That will probably always be our main home.
“We had a lake house outside of Nashville and we sold that and bought a place on a lake in the Georgia mountains. I don’t know if we’ll live there full time, but once Dani graduates we’ll probably spend more time there.”
There’s also been change in the air professionally. “Thirty Miles West” is the first album on EMI and Jackson’s own imprint, Alan’s Country Records. Critics are calling it “personal” and “emotional,” and he definitely shows his sensitive side on songs like “Everything But the Wings.” But Jackson has never been afraid of a change or a challenge. In fact he embraces it.
“You always want to make the best album you can, but we really just wanted to make something special, to have a good product we were proud of. When you’re in the studio you want to get a good vibe going there with everybody and sometimes you have to do something a little different to bring a little life back in it.”
Still, the songs on “Thirty Miles West” don’t sound a lot different than the songs on his debut album, 1989’s “Here in the Real World.”
“I guess that’s all I know how to do,” he laughs. “I don’t really think I can go in and change to a sound that is different. It wouldn’t be honest-sounding, I don’t think. I might do something different every now and then like that gospel album I did.”
Jackson’s traditional sound and authentic writing seems almost out of place with the pop-sounding bad boyfriend stuff and the rocking beer-worshipping stuff.
“There’s not a lot of artists that are getting to make real country music. I know there’s some that want to and try to, but they have a hard time getting played if it’s real traditional. Craig Campbell’s a guy that’s been around here a couple years now but he’s not breaking it wide open. He’s had a hit or two but he’s the closest thing to real traditional sounding stuff that I’ve heard. And I really like Zac Brown. He’s not real traditional but he’s rootsy, real music. He’s a good writer.”
And touring, Jackson says, is a young man’s game. “I can’t imagine there are a lot of artists that have toured for a long time that really enjoy staying gone on the road all the time. When you walk on stage, it’s always fun. You got a good crowd and the sound’s good, it makes you want to sing. But once you’ve got a wife and a family and a big home, it’s hard to leave there on Friday afternoon when everyone is just opening their beer and you’ve got to go to work. I never have been that crazy about being in the spotlight. For me, writing and making the records has always been the most challenging part and I think it keeps you interested because every time you start a new song or a new album, it’s a challenge to come up with something that works.”
And with more than 40 albums – some of which worked and some of which didn’t – Jackson knows there’s no perfect formula. Looking back over his 25 years in the music business, it’s impossible to say exactly why the talented guys who started out with Jackson — Travis Tritt and Clint Black, Joe Diffie and John Michael Montgomery — aren’t on radio any longer.
“I don’t know what happened. All those guys were really good singers and writers. I’ve seen a lot of them come and go, that’s for sure.”