Country superstar Alan Jackson says it best himself in his most famous ballad: "I'm not a real political man." Indeed, the singer from Newnan, Georgia's songwriting has centered around a traditional country voice--that of everyday working people, leading ordinary lives.
However, the deeply affecting song he penned several weeks after the events of 9/11/2001--"Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)"--abruptly changed the direction of Jackson's career by articulating what thousands of other "not real political" men and women felt and thought on that date.
Across the country, listeners nodded in unison to Jackson's lyrics, which somehow managed to comprise the multitude of emotions a nation felt after one terrible morning:
Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin' against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?
Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don't know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?
Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died just doin' what they do?
Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?
Jackson publically debuted "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" at the Country Music Association Awards, which fell two months after the attacks. He was originally slated to perform a different, upbeat hit on the show, but convinced the CMA producers to let him do a brand-new composition instead.
The following year, he won his first-ever Grammy for the song, as well as five CMA awards. Ten years later, he has been tapped to perform it for the Concert for Hope at the Kennedy Center. In years to come, it's doubtful his fans--or anyone who remembers 9/11--will forget his contribution to the date.
Wondering how the song has aged in Jackson's mind, and how it affects him today? The singer/songwriter took the opportunity to reflect on his touching ballad for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Looking back 10 years later--how did it feel back then to become involved in this national moment, in such a significant way? How do you feel about your role in the event now--do you feel your viewpoint has changed in any way?
At the time, it felt very meaningful to people and I felt really good about contributing something. And then I thought it would just fade away and then we'd ease it out of the show, but I still see people out there that I feel like are waiting for that song, you know?
How did the song originally come to you?
I woke up one morning around 4:00 a.m. a few weeks afterward, and had that chorus going through my head. The song came out of nowhere in the middle of the night--just a gift. And I got up and scribbled it down and put the melody down so I wouldn't forget it, and then the next day I started piecing all those verses together that were the thoughts I'd had or visuals I'd had. It was a Sunday — I remember because when I started writing it my wife and girls had gone off to Sunday School, and I finished it that day. Like I said, that song was just a gift. I've never felt I could take credit for writing it. Looking back, I guess I just didn't want to forget how I felt on that day and how I knew other people felt.
Can you share your feelings during the first time you performed it, at the CMA Awards that November?
It was a tough performance for me. You know, just the whole idea of releasing the song was a little bit tough. I wasn't sure I wanted to put it out, but everybody convinced me that it was the thing to do...and in retrospect, I agree with that. But, you know, it's hard to go out there and sing something new anyway, and just the topic made it difficult, too. I just remember--other than being relieved that I got through it--I just felt very proud that it seemed to cause a reaction in people. And I was proud that I got to do it and that it seemed like it meant something.
How does it feel to perform the song today?
Typically, when we kick that song off and the crowd realizes what it is, people hold up their lighters and things. And I've seen people crying in the crowds; and they cheer on lines that mean something, like the line about the heroes just doing what they do--they really like that. I don't know. There's a lot of emotion going on in the room during that song and it always makes me feel good that it has affected people that way.
Does the song have a different meaning or feeling for you now that so much time has passed since 9/11/2001?
I don't know--I think I was probably like most people that were impacted with that day and the months that followed. You know, everybody was glued to the news and television, and I think it really affected a lot of people--their perspective on their lives and their jobs and their families, and where they were and what they were wanting to do and how they looked at things. And I guess...that's what I was thinking, too.
There were many songs written about 9/11. Your song touched millions; many of them not even country-music fans. What is your personal theory on why your song was the one that spoke so clearly to a nation?
I think it's more than just the 9/11 connection. I mean, the basic message of the song is just about faith, hope, and love--right out of the Bible. And I think people like that positive feeling about it. When people think back on the days following the tragedy, I think their emotions are still stirred up by it and they remember what everybody felt and thought at that time. People were affected in so many ways.
Are you personally satisfied with how your song has aged over the past 10 years?
You know, still, at night, it's one of my biggest songs in the show. It's hard to follow it, but I see so many that are holding up their lighters and their phones and I think are moved by it…and that still makes me glad I did it.
Photo credit: Russ Harrington
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