This article originally appeared in the May/June 1992 issue of American Songwriter.
Despite the fact that he’s written some of the biggest hits in country music in recent months – “Don’t Rock The Jukebox” with Roger Murrah and Keith Stegall; “Someday” with Jim McBride; and “Better Class of Losers,” recorded by and written with Randy Travis – Alan Jackson maintains the same demeanor about his writing that he projects onstage…a demeanor that implies that he isn’t sure just how it is that he is able to write these hit songs that keep flowing from his pen onto paper.
It’s that “aw shucks” and boy-next-door style that has endeared Jackson to the many fans who have started listening to him since his first hit, “Here In The Real World” (which he also wrote, this one with Mark Irwin). In fact, Jackson’s name is on all the songs on his first album, and on all but one of his second recording.
Jackson isn’t one of those songwriters who knew from the beginning that he would be a writer. Early on, he never paid much attention to the names listed as writers on the records he bought. He was more interested in the singing aspect of the business, and it wasn’t until a musician who played in a rock band around Atlanta advised him that if he intended to come to Nashville, he’d better have some original material, that Jackson even considered sitting down to write a song.
The fact of the matter was, Jackson really hadn’t considered that a career in music was possible; he felt it more of a dream until one day, a friend who grew up in the little town of Newnan, Georgia with him followed his dream and became an airline pilot. That set Jackson to thinking that maybe dreams can come true, and put him on a course that eventually would lead him to Nashville.
The dream became reality for his friend right out of high school, but it was a few years later before Jackson would pursue his own dream. It just happened that about the same time he was thinking that he should do this, his wife Denise changed jobs and he found himself alone one summer while she worked out of Charlotte, N.C. Since there wasn’t much else to do after he got home from work, he started to write songs.
“I don’t know, I didn’t really study anybody’s songs, but I had heard and sang enough to know the basic structure of a song, so I just sat down and started writing,” Jackson said of his first venture into songwriting. He quickly admitted, however, that none of those songs made it onto either of his albums; in fact, he would just as soon not show them to anyone in Nashville. “Some of them were fair, I guess, but I wouldn’t want to play them for anyone now,” he said with a laugh.
Once in Nashville, Jackson went to work at The Nashville Network in the mailroom, continuing to write because now that he was actually in town, he quickly found that not only was it not going to be an easy task to make music his career, he still had to write songs because it was hard for a newcomer such as himself to get songs pitched to him.
Ironically, it was his wife who made the initial contact with a publishing company which brought him his first salaried job as a songwriter. Going though an airport one day, Denice saw Glen Campbell, and because of Alan she went up to him, introduced herself, and said she and her husband were getting ready to move to Nashville and did he have any advice to offer? Campbell gave her a business card from his publishing company, and Jackson made contact with personnel at the company as soon as he could after moving to Nashville. Though they didn’t hear a hit song right away, they encouraged the young man to keep in touch, and a year later the publishing company signed Jackson to a publishing agreement.
He was still without a recording contract, however, and with his songs improving, Jackson was hesitant to let any of them go to other artists, and the publishing company was very patient about that. However, “Here In The Real World” did get pitched, and cut, by a new artist on Warner Brothers Records. Something happened, the song was never released, and Jackson got it back, just in time to record it on a session for his new label, Arista Records.
“I still don’t pitch many of my songs,” Jackson said. “I might pitch something every now and then, if there’s something in the catalog that I just don’t think would be something I would cut.”
Of course Jackson has had a cut by another artist, namely Randy Travis, with whom he wrote when the two were touring together last year.
“I was touring with Randy and he wanted to write, so we just did it,” Jackson recalled how the two of them started writing together. Now that their schedules are so totally different, and the two no longer travel together, “it’s really hard to get together to write now.”
Nevertheless, the collaboration yielded the aforementioned “Better Class Of Losers” as well as “Allergic To The Blues,” “I’d Surrender All” and “Forever Together,” all on Travis’ latest album. Jackson managed to snag one for himself, “From A Distance,” which is on his “Don’t Rock The Jukebox” album, and he has been quoted as saying he’d like to have a little better timing on the duo’s next writing sessions.
“It was close to time for Randy to record, so he got first choice on the songs we wrote,” explained Jackson. “Maybe next time it’ll be the other way around.”
Jackson said he likes to co-write, but he also likes to write by himself. One thing co-writing taught him, he emphasized, is that you don’t always take the first line that comes along.
“I’m real impatient, and co-writing helped me learn not to take that first line, to always strive to write one a little better, one phrased a little differently,” Jackson said. “I learned you have to work at getting the line just right so they all will flow into each other throughout the song.”
One of the hardest things about writing along, Jackson admits, is the discipline of sitting down and actually writing. He writes about real things, and said those songs which come from heart are the songs that come across better when they are recorded and an audience finally gets to hear them.
“When I write, I just sit down and write for myself, something I might like with no one in particular in mind,” Jackson said his writing sessions. “I try to write things that sound good for what I enjoy singing.”
While Jackson said he gets ides from everywhere, he said a song is usually not worth pursuing if you can’t get the hook right away, or if you can’t come up with any really good lines. However, there are always exceptions to the rule.
“Jim McBride and I were writing and we had this idea, “Short Sweet Ride,” that we were kicking around. He played me a piece of melody and a couple of lines. It sounded like a part of a chorus but without a hook. Within a couple of sessions we had written three verses and the chorus, but we still lacked what I consider the most important line, the hook. Then we spent one whole day looking for that line which came to be “It’s a short sweet ride on a runaway train.”
When asked how he knows when to stop writing on a song, Jackson said he takes a song and lives with it a couple days, then goes back to listen to it and see if it flows and makes sense. If it does, he considers it finished. If not, he goes back to work to make it into a better song.
Because he is so busy, Jackson finds time to write more on the road than he does when he’s home, due in part to the fact that he wants to spend time with his 20-month old daughter, Mattie Denise.
“I like to spend time with my family when I’m off the road, so it’s really hard to write then,” Jackson said. “there is more time on the road, but you still have to make yourself write, you still have to have that discipline, to sit down and write a song. ”
Citing Merle Haggard, Bob McDill, Hank Williams Sr. and Max D. Barnes among his favorite writers, Jackson said he would like to get cuts by Jones of Haggard. “Actually, I have a couple songs that I should send to them,” he conceded.
Jackson’s advice to new writers is simple: “Write what you believe in,” he advised. “Some of my number one songs were songs that other people didn’t believe in. It (success) will come if you are where you are supposed to be.”