When country hit-maker Alan Jackson sings ”Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” the world doesn’t come to a halt, but things do tend to move a lot slower. Inside L.A.’s cavernous Staples Center on the day before the Grammys, stagehands and assorted guests largely stop what they’re doing as Jackson rehearses the tune in front of a small orchestra, singing lines by now familiar to the ear of any country aficionado, and which ring familiar to the hearts, at least, of those hearing it for the first time. ”Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke/Rising against that blue sky/Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor/Or did you just sit down and cry…” Solemnity sweeps through the basketball palace as folks stop to absorb his litany of just about every emotional reaction the tragedies provoked, from sobbing to paralysis, gun-buying to survivors’ guilt, pride to prayer.
Writing about the Grammys the next day, Salon.com critic Eric Boehlert will call ”Where Were You” a ”reflective hymn that Americans will be listening to well into the second half of this century.” Not everyone is so moved: Some hear a song full of Bible thumping (”I know Jesus and I talk to God”), ignorance of international affairs (”I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran”), even jingoism. ”I’m sure there are people who criticize it,” Jackson says, sitting in a tour bus outside the arena. (No flags here; just framed Patsy and Willie album covers.) ”But I wrote what I felt; I didn’t premeditate anything. I’m just a singer of simple songs, and that’s the truth. And I don’t know the difference in Iran and Iraq. And some people that aren’t real religious probably don’t want to hear it, and that’s all right.” He chuckles. ”I didn’t sit down to heal the world or anything.”
Evidently he’s not kin to those other Jacksons.
He didn’t sit down at all to write the song, actually. Rather, Jackson sat bolt upright in bed one night in late October with most of it in his head. ”After the 11th, I was pretty disturbed, like most people. For a few weeks I thought about writing something – I’m sure a lot of people who write songs felt the same way – but I didn’t want to write a patriotic thing and couldn’t think of anything that didn’t feel like you’d be taking advantage of it commercially. So I didn’t think anything else about it, to be honest.” Then occurred the sort of lucid dream where the melody, opening lines, and chorus came to him as if holy writ. ”I’d just gotten this girl who works for me to buy me one of them skinny little digital recorder things, so I went downstairs in my underwear and put this thing down so I wouldn’t forget it the next morning.
”It’s been overwhelming, the response to it, and a little scary, really, for me,” he continues. ”I’ve had so many people come up to me, and I don’t know what to say, other than that I just feel like it was a gift from God. I don’t know why He picked me to send those words to, but I’m glad it’s been a healing song for some people.” Jackson has turned down most opportunities to promote the track, though he is less worried about accusations of exploitation after getting scores of thankful notes from survivors and victims’ families. And he did spurn all offers to perform ”Where Were You” on TV in the three and a half months between its premiere on the Country Music Awards in early November and the Grammys in late February.
Some things were harder to turn down than others, but one was a no-brainer for traditionalism’s poster boy. Folks at his label, Arista Nashville, contacted him when the record began to take off, ”and they had a handful of pop or adult-contemporary radio stations that were wanting to play it or threatening to play it, but they wanted to know if we could take off the fiddle and steel. I said, ‘You know what? There’s hardly any fiddle and steel on that record! If it’s offensive,”’ he remembers telling the company, ”’they just shouldn’t play it, I guess.”’
Says producer Keith Stegall, who’s worked on every Jackson album since his 1990 debut: ”Alan and I were laughing the other night about the album sitting where it’s sitting and what a wonderful thing that is. But it’s like I told him: ‘You couldn’t go pop with a firecracker in your mouth, man.”’