Where Were You When Alan Jackson Stunned The Post-9/11 CMAs?

Alan Jackson
Courtesy CMA
– Alan Jackson
at the 2001 CMA awards.

When Vince Gill introduced Alan Jackson on the “35th CMA Awards” in 2001, no one was prepared for the lanky superstar to shatter the public consciousness. Yes, Gill explained the potency of the four-time nominee, saying, “The songs he writes always tell it like it is. Simple truths that come from his heart.”

America had been in a state of shock, a numbness that came from the fallout of 9/11 and the Twin Towers falling. More than our innocence, the violence of terrorism struck the nation’s collective conscious over coffee, getting kids ready for school or out the door to work. 
While there were whispers floating through the Grand Ole Opryhouse about a very special performance, who would expect a country singer to speak for a nation? 
Yet on a darkened stage, with an orchestra and the Strayhorns behind him, his long limbs covered by torn jeans, Jackson’s fingers found the strings and he exhaled, “Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day? Out in the yard with your wife and your children? Working on some stage in LA? Did you stand there in shock at the site of that black smoke rising against that blue sky …”
The images and emotions tumbled across the lush strings, the mandolin sparkling on top as Jackson gently pushed against, then pressed into his own tangled emotions. 
Confronted by the unthinkable, the songwriter/superstar had weathered many sleepless nights trying to make sense of the rage and the hatred. In the darkness of the morning of Oct. 28, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” woke him; stumbling to his study, he captured the melody, working to get all the lyrics in the haze.
 The only thing awards shows hate more than ballads are last-minute changes Determined, then manager Nancy Russell played the song for RCA chief Joe Galante. When he heard the song, he teamed with Russell to convince director Walter Miller and CMA executives to allow the change. 
Unprecedented. But it was a moment of such startling clarity for a nation seeking solace and faith, the unthinkable happened. Backstage, one-on-one interviews stopped. The hallway hustle and churn ceased as stylists, agents, sidemen and managers crowded around monitors, straining to hear Jackson confess: 
“I’m just a singer of simple songs/ I’m not a real political man
“I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the diff’rence in Iraq and Iran
“But I know Jesus and I talk to God, And I remember this from when I was young
“Faith, hope, and love are some good things He gave us. 
“And the greatest is love…”
CMA CEO Sarah Trahern had been told that afternoon TNN was phasing out programming; she and her team were likely losing their jobs. 
“I almost didn’t go, because, you know, we’d all just been let go. ‘What was the point?’ I remember figuring, ‘Why not?’ and sitting in the balcony of the Opryhouse. My jaw just dropped. That song is pure poetry – and I don’t think in 3 ½ or 4 minutes anyone else captured all the emotions of it.
“Anyone in our business knows where they were when ‘Where Were You’ was played that night. The man is unabashedly country; he doesn’t apologize for it. There’s a new generation who gets it, and he doesn’t need to be anything else. Right here, this is why: he understands.”
It’s true. On that darkened stage, with an unfamiliar song, Alan Jackson spoke for rich, poor, old, young, urban, suburban, rural. Leaning into the emotional polarities, he created a truth for all. The Opryhouse erupted. Looking back, Trahern smiles about that moment’s balming effect. 
“In a hundred years,” says the seasoned television executive, “that will still be one of the Top 10, maybe Top 5 moments in all of country music history. At a time when the country needed it, Alan Jackson had the song that gave people back what they were looking for.”