It was the song that resonated with millions of Americans following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Alan Jackson's 'Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)' echoed the sentiments of countless grieving individuals, shocked and saddened after watching terrorists crash two planes into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth -- also headed for D.C. -- crash in a field in Pennsylvania. While the song became one of the most successful singles of Alan's legendary career, the singer-songwriter says it was born of his own inner turmoil.
"The song really came out of nowhere in the middle of the night," he recalls. "It was just a gift. I got up and scribbled it down and put the melody down so I wouldn't forget it, and the next day I started piecing all those verses together, thoughts I had or visuals I had."
The married father of three says he identified with the feelings of millions of others struggling to come to terms with the shocking attacks. "I was probably like most people who were impacted with that day and the months that followed," he admits. "Everybody was glued to the news and television. I think it really affected a lot of people, their perspective on their lives and their jobs and their families, and where they were and what they wanted to do and how they looked at things, and I guess that's what I was thinking too. I visualized a lot of those scenes and the stories I had heard and seen on television or heard people talking about."
The multi-platinum-selling artist wrote the song six weeks after the horrific events, while he was still grappling with his own emotions. Intending to keep it to himself, he was encouraged to perform the emotionally-charged tune at the CMA Awards less than two weeks later. It quickly became an American anthem.
"It was a tough performance for me, just the whole idea of releasing that song was a little bit tough," concedes the 52-year-old. "I wasn't sure I wanted to put that out, but everybody convinced me it was the thing to do, and in retrospect I agree with that, but I hadn't really sung that song much, first of all. It's hard to go out and sing something new anyway, and the topic made it nerve-wracking. I didn't think about what was going to happen or anything. We just sang it, and I just remember, other than being relieved I got through it, I felt very proud that it seemed to cause a reaction with people. I was proud that I got to it do it and it seemed like it meant something."
'Where Were You' went on to win several awards, including the Georgia native's first Grammy, for Best Country Song. Yet, even Alan is surprised at the impact the chart-topping song still has today. "At the time, it was very meaningful to people and I felt really good about contributing something. I thought it would fade away, and we'd ease it out of the show, but now I see people out there that I feel like are waiting for the song. I think it's more than just the 9-11 connection. I mean, the real hook in it is just quotes right out of the Bible anyway. Still, it's one of my biggest songs of the show. It's hard to follow it but I see so many that are holding up lighters and are glad to hear it and ... are moved by it and glad I did it."
One decade later, the Tennessee resident often hears how the powerful lyrics, such as "Did you turn off that violent old movie you were watching / And turn on 'I Love Lucy' reruns?" and "Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family / Thank God you had someone to love," resonated and even changed lives. "I had so many people tell me that there was something ... whether it was go to church or pick up their Bible or go see their mother or watch a sunset. People said they quit their jobs and they changed their lifestyles and started going to church and found somebody to marry."
Alan will head to Washington, D.C., this Sunday, September 11, to perform the historic song at the Washington National Cathedral as part of the 'A Call to Compassion,' which will also feature performances by Patti LaBelle and opera singer Denyce Graves. The concert will air on several ABC affiliates, beginning at 8:00 PM ET. See local listings here.