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Cat In The Hat

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Alan Jackson may be a self-confessed champion of the redneck, but he’s also a Georgia gentleman. And so, right when he should be savoring his greatest career triumph, he’s sheepish in victory, cognizant that it came at somebody else’s expense.

”I didn’t know who Creed was, to be honest with you,” says the soft-spoken country superstar. ”It’s probably not nice to say, but I just had never heard of them. And I kinda felt bad for ’em.” No, he’s not kidding. Jackson had this reaction after his new album, Drive, sold 423,000 copies out of the gate in mid- January and drove the spiritually inclined rockers out of the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s pop chart after a two-month reign. You might as well have told him he’d just pulled taffy from a baby. ”Somebody said they were going for a record number of weeks or something, and I knocked ’em out. I kind of hated to do it. They’re a new act, I guess, and it’s probably a big thing for them.” Jackson seems so chivalrously predisposed toward abdicating his chart throne you almost picture him throwing an embroidered Nudie’s jacket over a mud puddle for Creed frontman Scott Stapp to step across. ”I’ve been around, so it doesn’t really matter to me,” Jackson explains. ”I mean, the pop charts — I’m glad to be there, I guess, but I never understood why we show up on there anyway.”

That puzzlement may be shared by millions of urban rock and hip-hop partialists, all of them wondering: Hey, wasn’t this whole hick thing supposed to have bought the farm by now? The stats have had country music on the wane, if not quite the ropes, for several years now, the Garth-driven surge of the early ’90s already consigned to the history books. Lately, only country’s reigning female sexpots seemed to have a shot at impacting mainstream media and going multiplatinum; with Shania, Faith, and the Chicks all producing babies (and, in the latter case, lawsuits) faster than new albums, it’s been a long spell between superstar releases, auguring an even more severe downturn for beleaguered Nashville. It was time for the menfolk to step back up to the plate.

Enter a hero in a white hat. Last fall, Jackson was coming off a string of largely rowdy country radio singles that were all great fun but didn’t much reflect the more ruminative side of his reticent personality. And then, after Sept. 11, that, like a hundred billion other things, changed. Coming out of the same melancholy that most of his countrymen felt, Jackson wrote and recorded ”Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a ballad that crystallized this moment in history like no other song, with its mixture of shell shock and hope. It rocketed to No. 1 on the country chart — no surprise, given that Jackson had already had 27 tunes hit that mark in a career spanning almost 12 years. What was less predictable was the degree to which spiritually parched non-country fans succumbed to it too. Rock & roll hadn’t been able to muster anything better than ”Freedom,” Paul McCartney’s far less nuanced fist-puncher. For the first time in years, country was clearly providing more topical and relevant reportage about the American mood than any other music. Suddenly the lanky hat act whose last single had been the hilariously down-market ”It’s Alright to Be a Redneck” was our unlikely new poet laureate.

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