Reconsidering Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World…)”

You might be a bit surprised to learn that the proprietor of a website called “Saving Country Music” didn’t always hold the fondest assessment of all the songs of Alan Jackson. Don’t worry, I have since reconsidered the swaths of his catalog that were previously appraised as problematic for one reason or another. And how couldn’t you? As today’s popular country music continues to demonstrably disappoint and make us nostalgic and envious for previous eras in the genre, Alan’s contributions to country music have only continued to be graced favorably by the most critical, honest, and final arbiter of the quality of music—that being the unforgiving and brutal judge of time.

It wasn’t that every Alan Jackson song was previously regarded unfavorably. Songs like “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” “Don’t Rock The Jukebox,” and “Gone Country” require no retrospective for a positive estimate. But let’s be honest, “Chattahoochee” is a little cheesy, however catchy and infectious. “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” is a bit silly, and busy. And then there’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).”

You couldn’t chide the song for being poorly written, because it wasn’t. You couldn’t say it was dispassionately performed, because that wasn’t the case either. In fact there was little to nothing wrong with the song itself. Well, maybe that line about not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran felt a bit patronizing. But mostly it was intangibles surrounding the song like an assumed intent, and the timing that had some, and perhaps many outside of the country genre seeing the song as opportunistic to the point of being inappropriate, while others just considered it overly sentimental.

The biggest problem with “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” wasn’t anything with the song itself, it was the environment it was released in. Even still, when Alan Jackson debuted it at the CMA Awards on November 7th, 2001, it was met by nearly universal acclaim by those in country music, and many outside of it. “I didn’t want to write a patriotic song,” Jackson said at the time. “And I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either.”

He also didn’t want to capitalize off the tragedy, and admitted being reluctant to record and perform it at all. Jackson said that after September 11th, he immediately wanted to write a song about it, if not for the public, then maybe just for himself—to externalize the thoughts and feelings he had watching it all unfold on television. The song didn’t come to him until a Sunday morning at 4 a.m. on October 28, 2001. He rolled out of bed, still in his underwear, and hummed the melody and the opening lines into a voice recorder. When his family had scampered off to Sunday school and he had the house to himself, he completed the song.

10 days later, Alan Jackson was performing “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” on the CMA Awards, with his band and a 15-piece orchestra behind him. The song would go on to win the CMA Song of the Year in 2002, and Alan Jackson would win Entertainer of the Year in 2002, and 2003, in large part due to the reception of the song, and the resurgence it caused in Jackson’s career.

But it wasn’t anything Alan Jackson did that made many sour on the song in subsequent years. It’s what much of the rest of country music did. Where Alan Jackson made the effort to remove the anger, and any elements of overt patriotism from the song that could have rendered it as trite—and tried not to capitalize off the tragedy commercially—in May of 2002, Toby Keith released “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which did all of these unfavorable things. Then Darryl Worley released “Have You Forgotten?” in March of 2003 as attention turned from Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden, to War in Iraq.

When Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks had the audacity to question the wisdom of attacking Iraq, the group that on September 11th, 2001 had been the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year were summarily cancelled. Soon, all of country music was seen as this jingoistic, reactionary institution in America, and “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” was lumped in right there with it, with few taking the time to regard the lyrics, and the intent of the song, or heeding how the chorus resolves in the simple notion of “love.”

But it wasn’t Toby Keith winning Song of the Year or CMA’s Entertainer award. It was Alan Jackson. Radio may have banned the Dixie Chicks (now The Chicks), and Toby Keith may have made more money than Alan Jackson and the Dixie Chicks combined through the era (and he did as the biggest-grossing country star of the oughts), but that ultimate arbiter of time has judged the contributions of these artists quite differently.

Even that line in the song about not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran, eventually you understand this was just Alan Jackson’s way of imparting the song with an everyman’s point-of-view. One of the few beautiful things after 9/11 was how proud Southerners stood up to count every single one of those Yankees in New York City affected by the attacks as their brothers and sisters. Alan Jackson captured that sentiment better than most.

It’s still understandable how some see “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” as opportunistic. Recalling the song 20 years on for the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Alan Jackson himself reflected on performing it on the CMA Awards in 2001, “It was a tough performance for me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to put that out, but everybody convinced me that it was the thing to do.”

It was Alan Jackson’s wife, his producer Keith Stegall, and others that told him it was what we all needed at the time. And while some of country music’s patriotic songs from that era have become clichés, punchlines, and anchors on the legacy of country music, as Jackson says himself, “Where Were You” has blossomed into something more.

“Now it’s kinda grown into just its own song outside of 9/11, where it’s just a song about faith and hope and love. And I see that in the crowds now: A lot of my fans, younger fans, weren’t hardly even around when the 9/11 happened, but they have connected with that song, and it’s one of the highlights of the show now. It’s amazing that it has outlived where it really began.”

That’s because when you put your very soul into a song like Alan Jackson did with “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” time will always grace it favorably, even if it takes a little time for that to happen.

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