Alan Jackson has a little question he asks himself to keep his head in the right place.
“Would Merle Haggard do that?”
In an age of glitzy country stars and onstage pageantry, the tall, modest Georgian stands out by not standing out. Some artists wear tradition as a fashion. For Jackson, it’s instinctive.
At his concerts, Jackson doesn’t have much trouble resisting the urge to get fancy. That might be how they do it in Nashville these days. But that’s not how Merle has ever done it.
“We have a nice video and lights, but I don’t jump out of the floor or come out of the ceiling. We don’t have exotic dancers,” he says in a homey drawl. Artists such as Haggard and George Strait “are my heroes. That’s who I model myself after. We have a good band, and we play live music, and that’s it.”
Jackson, who turned 50 last month, has long been known as a quiet sort. But his career record speaks loud: Nearly 20 years after breaking out with the double-platinum debut “Here in the Real World,” Jackson has tallied more than 50 singles, a dozen No. 1 country albums and a truckload of Country Music Association Awards, including three for entertainer of the year. His two greatest-hits records have sold more than 6 million copies apiece, making them two of the best-selling country albums of the modern era.
Conveying an approachable, aw-shucks demeanor might be Public Imaging 101 for any successful country artist. But with Jackson, the humility has always seemed to come from a real place. He loves his gig, but he’s not big on the hoopla that comes with it.
“Early in my career, you did what you had to do,” he says, looking back on his breakthrough years in the early ‘90s. “But I hated doing all that TV, all the talk shows. I feel like I don’t fit in there. When you’re lucky enough to reach a certain level of success, you don’t have to sell yourself as much, which is good, because I don’t enjoy that part.”
At home near Nashville, Jackson manages to stay out of the showbiz spotlight. He and his wife, high school sweetheart Denise Jackson, “try to be regular people” as much as the lifestyle allows. His mind is never far from music - he’s constantly scribbling lyric ideas and melodies - but Jackson tries not to get caught up in the music business.
“I feel like I’ve kept my feet on the ground,” he says.
Even today - after the success, the fame, the two dozen No. 1 singles - Jackson confesses, “I can talk to the guy who works on my car easier than I can talk to a reporter in Detroit.”
Keeping the music straightforward comes easy, too. After a brief sojourn into gospel music (“Precious Memories”) and classic countrypolitan (“Like Red on a Rose”), Jackson returned to his honky-tonk roots with his latest record, “Good Time,” reteaming with longtime producer Keith Stegall. The album topped the Billboard 200 when it was released in the spring, and produced a pair of No. 1 country singles in the title track and “Small Town Southern Man.”
Jackson says he never wants to stray too far from fans’ expectations.
“It’s a tough line to walk to make the kind of music you want to make but won’t scare people off,” he says. “That’s the tricky part - doing something you’re artistically proud of but at the same time creating that music you feel like everyone will understand and appreciate. You can go in and make some artsy album that’s really cool and wins a Grammy, but it won’t sell anything.”
Racking up so much commercial success, though, creates its own dilemma when it comes time to sketch out a concert set list.
“It’s tough, man. I’ve got 50-something singles. You can’t do half of them, hardly, in a couple of hours,” he says. “I’m not real crazy about medleys, but I have gotten to where I won’t do a whole song - I’ll leave out a verse so I can get more songs in. I try to pick the songs that had more of an impact over the years, and try to squeeze ‘em all in there, and it’s working pretty good.”
Amid the economic jitters, Jackson says he’s trying to keep ticket prices as reasonable as he can. His low-key stage production doesn’t hurt: For many in the touring industry, “the fuel thing has hurt a lot, because they have a traveling circus.”
Jackson knows it’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed these days, bombarded by bad news and technology overload. Jackson thinks music is still an important escape, a way for people to step back from their keyboards and TVs and texting devices to get their minds off the trouble.
“My music is simple,” he says. “It’s about good and bad, fun things and sad things. And there are still people who need that.”