Jackson In The Driver's Seat

The singer takes the stage at New York's legendary punk club CBGB against a backdrop of graffitied walls and shredded fliers for obscure, long-gone bands. A tattooed, dreadlocked bouncer gets ready, folding his arms forebodingly over a faded T shirt that reads MONEY + DRUGS = WOMEN. But as he turns to face the crowd, it's apparent there'll be no slamming tonight. Instead, men in cowboy hats, women with sprayed, crunchy hairdos and even a few hotties in made in America sweaters raise their Buds in the air and salute Nashville superstar Alan Jackson with a cacophony of farmhand-style shouts. The bouncer rolls his eyes.

Jackson--clad in a bucking-bronco print shirt, creased jeans and white boots--is the most unlikely guy to hit this grungy stage in years. First of all, he's a country act at a time when country isn't cool--again. Second, the 44-year-old songwriter has sold an estimated 35 million albums since 1989 and normally plays arenas that make CBGB look like a taco stand.

But this self-described man of the people decided "it'd just be fun" to play this 300-capacity club. He's in town to promote his new CD "Drive" --currently the best-selling album in the country--on Letterman and Rosie. "This is where the kind of music I make is meant to be heard," Jackson said midset, lifting his Stetson to wipe sweat. "But I'd pay back the two hundred bucks I'm making tonight if they'd turn up that darn air conditioner."

Though Jackson is one of country music's hottest acts (his new single, "Where Were You," is his most successful to date), he's hardly an industry poster boy. The singer spent the last five years poking fun at the slick, pop-obsessed likes of contemporary Nashville. There are his sarcastic hits, "Three Minute, Positive, Not-Too-Country, Up-Tempo Love Song" (clocking in at exactly three minutes), and the time he spontaneously performed a George Jones tune at the Country Music Awards to protest that the legendary singer was given only one minute to play. He still uses mandolin and pedal steel, while his peers groove to electric guitar and drum machines.

"I'm not a big showman," says the 6-foot-4 Georgian, who sits in a downstairs lounge before the show with his wife, Denise. "I'm a singer-songwriter kind of guy. They use big lights and video to try to make me look excitin', but it's still just me standing there in the end." "Drive" is yet another exercise in keeping it real, Nashville style. Memories of his late father fill the title track, while in "First Love," he laments a 1955 T-Bird he sold when buying a house with Denise. (Years later she bought the car back for him, providing the happy ending.) Jackson's resonant and soulful voice does full justice to such honky-tonk anthems as "Work in Progress" and "Designated Drinker," a duet with George Strait.

"Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" appears twice on the album (a live and a studio version). Jackson wrote it shortly after 9-11, and performed it at the Country Music Awards: "Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow?" he sings. "Go out and buy a gun? Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watching and turn on old 'I Love Lucy' reruns?" The live version of the song became a requested radio hit before it was ever officially released. When Jackson performs the song at CBGB, even the biggest guys in the room (many of whom are local firemen) cry.

Spiritual music ruled Jackson's early life, but aside from the gospel he heard on his dad's radio, he was not a "music-lovin', record-buyin' kind of guy." That changed when he was introduced to Gene Watson, John Anderson and Hank Jr. by a friend. Jackson started a band after high school, moved from his hometown of Newnan, Ga., to Nashville with Denise at 27 (the two married six years earlier) and eventually signed with Arista. Jackson was one in a pack of country revivalists who revitalized the sluggish genre with more meaty, traditional tunes.

Though country is suffering another artistic and monetary slump, Jackson's no-frills style remains a successful anomaly. "If I were a new artist today, it'd be real difficult to get on the radio," says Jackson. "It's hard when you're a traditionalist, or whatever they like to call me. I just lucked into a window of opportunity when I started, and it's allowed me to call my own shots. I may be naive, but I believe that good songs are what's allowed me to hang in this long."