Cat in the Hat

After his second run-through of ''Where Were You'' at the Staples Center, Jackson is satisfied, and so are the folks running the show. ''That's great, Alan,'' calls out Grammy producer and director Walter Miller, breaking the tension. ''It'll be even better when the clog dancers come in.''

Eh...? Inside joke there. The acerbic Miller is riffing on a routine that was supposed to have gone down three and a half months ago at the Country Music Awards, which he also produced. Jackson had been scheduled to perform ''Where I Come From,'' a lighthearted, Southern-fried hit off his 2000 album, ''When Somebody Loves You,'' at the Nov. 7 event, and in keeping with the tune's keep-it-real-and-keep-it-rural theme, he'd figured that as a goof, it would be fun to enlist the Melvin Sloan Dancers, traditional mountain cloggers frequently seen at the Grand Ole Opry. This was, of course, to the chagrin of parties charged with trying to rid the kitsch from a show designed to prove to mainstream America each year just how with-it country music really is.

It all became a moot point when, just days before the telecast, Jackson's manager met with the CMA brass and played them a track she thought they might like to have him perform instead -- ''Where Were You,'' which Jackson had recorded only four days prior. By the time the tune was over, all four of the men in the room were crying, because it is a tearjerker -- but, perhaps, also out of joy that they wouldn't be forced to parade a pack of square dancers in skirts and checkered shirts past a confused and divided nation.

If Jackson had succeeded in getting his cloggers on the CMAs, it would be far from the first time he'd tweaked the sensibilities of the show or the industry itself with his sometimes wickedly funny determination to make country music face up to its yokel past.

At the 2000 CMA telecast, he raised a few eyebrows by performing his hit ''www.memory '' on a set that sported computers perched on hay bales, despite being warned that farm stuff doesn't really fit in with the new vision of country. ''Oh, I'm such a rebel!'' he scoffs, self-mockingly, when the incident is raised. ''But, you know, it seems like Nashville is always apologizing for its roots, and trying to get away from the wagon wheels and cowboy hats.'' Send in the clogs.