The often dubbed “class of ‘89” is named that way for two reasons: One, because it introduced four new artists into the mainstream country fray; and two, because those four performers each had distinctive styles that determined country music’s path throughout the next decade.
Garth Brooks, of course, fused the country sound of his records with an arena-rock presentation for his live shows, forever altering country music’s stance as a musical genre in the public eye. Travis Tritt, on the other hand, stood in sharp contrast to both the hat acts that favored traditionalism and the forward-thinking approaches of Brooks and Shania Twain, fusing his country music with a sharp southern-rock attitude – one of his songs is quite literally called “Put Some Drive In Your Country.” Clint Black, as I just mentioned not too long ago, offered a clean-cut fusion of a Merle Haggard-esque vocal tone with a sharp production bite and equally strong writing. He’d quickly lose steam in comparison with the rest of his peers – especially Brooks – but he’d also have the quickest start out of the gate.
And then there’s Alan Jackson, who, like Black, favored traditionalism, but didn’t elicit any immediate comparisons to those before him – at least not from a vocal perspective. Indeed, Jackson, at least to me, has endured the greatest longevity of the four artists, and it may just be for the timeless simplicity of his music.
Of course, Jackson’s laid-back approach to his craft is somewhat reflected in his own journey to Nashville. He didn’t aspire to have a music career until age twenty. Encouraged by his father, a mechanic, at age fifteen Jackson spent a year rebuilding a vintage Thunderbird, and after high school went into the used-car business. He married young and played in a country cover band called Dixie Steel (their name taken from a box of nails), absorbing a love for George Jones, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard songs along the way. Jackson, who didn’t know anything about the music business then, started writing songs and set out for Nashville with wife Denise in 1985.
“I didn’t have a clue. I was so young and naive to come up here and stick my neck out like this. But I didn’t have much to lose, so I guess that’s why I did it,” Jackson says in the liner notes of his Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story box set.
Denise, a flight attendant at the time, coincidentally ran into Glen Campbell at an airport one time and asked advice on how to break her husband into the business. Campbell referred Jackson to his Nashville office, where he received his start. He worked in the mailroom at TNN and began singing on songwriters’ demos, eventually landing a deal with Campbell’s KayTeeKay Music publishing firm.
Jackson further credits producer Keith Stegall for making the tracks that would land Jackson a record deal with Arista Records in June 1989, the first artist signed to the label. Stegall, of course, credits Jackson, who, in an early meeting with Stegall, brought a brown paper bag filled with cassette tapes of songs he’d written … which continuously produced hits for him four albums into his career.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, especially when Jackson’s debut single, “Blue Blooded Woman,” in Jackson’s own words, “died a miserable death on the charts,” peaking at a paltry No. 45 on the charts. The Jackson family discovered their first child was on the way, and Alan braced for what he feared might have meant a move back to Georgia to start a new career.
Around that same time, another writer, Mark Irwin, was starting his career in Nashville. He didn’t start as a writer, though. Irwin obtained a job at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe upon his arrival to the city, working as a bartender’s assistant for two years.
The Bluebird, of course, was a showcase for many newer country music acts trying to make it in the music business, and many music industry executives frequently showed up there scouting for new talent. In a business reliant on networking, Irwin, then, had the perfect opportunity to meet publishers and songwriters from an “outsider’s” perspective, all while secretly honing his own compositions. Through some contacts, Irwin’s compositions reached Jackson, who liked what he heard. The two decided to get together for a writing session.
Irwin, a movie buff, tried to come up with a song centered around that idea, when Jackson suddenly hit a D chord on his guitar and started singing, “Cowboys don’t cry and heroes don’t die,” which gave Irwin the inspiration he needed – the song came together in about 45 minutes.
This was before Jackson signed with Arista. Released as a “hail Mary” moment for Jackson’s potential music career, “Here In The Real World” became Jackson’s first top five hit; Irwin no longer had to be a bartender, and Jackson no longer had to worry about his future. Once Jackson became a country music star, in fact, he purchased a vacation house on Center Hill Lake near Nashville and named it “The Real World,” in celebration of that first hit, further putting the inscription in big letters on the brick entrance to his home. When Irwin heard of that, he bought some paint, took it to Jackson’s house and painted “The Real World” on the mailbox.