Is Alan Jackson's 9/11 song touching or tacky? Put in the context of country music, says Ken Tucker, it's powerful American poetry
Alan Jackson
Credit: Alan Jackson: Dan MacMedan/ImageDirect

Is Alan Jackson’s 9/11 song touching or tacky?

The prolific country-music songwriter Harlan Howard, who died earlier this week, once said that country music is ”85 percent words, 15 percent music,” and that’s a good detail to bear in mind when considering Alan Jackson’s immensely popular hit single ”Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” It’s also good to remember that country music is basically a music for adults, not adolescents: Its pervasive subjects are love, marriage, infidelity, and trying to find the keys to your truck after a night of honky-tonk self-medicating. The rebelliousness and anger that characterizes rock & roll are of lesser importance in country music, which prizes home and comfort as ultimate solace.

All of which is a way of saying that ”Where Were You,” written by Jackson about the multitude of reactions prompted by the events of Sept. 11, wouldn’t cut it as rock music, in whose context a line like, ”Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones” might come off as mawkish, but when placed in a country-music setting seems heartfelt, verging on eloquence. (Contrast this with Paul McCartney’s absolutely dreadful ”Freedom,” a singalong he flogged everywhere including the Super Bowl without coming close to turning it into the post-Sept.11 anthem he so clearly wanted it to become.)

Some people think a tune like ”Where Were You,” in part due to the very fact that it’s a huge commercial success, exploits Sept. 11 grief, manipulating melodrama. And I have to confess my own reservations about a line like, ”I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran.” (My gut reaction is, well, heck, Alan, turn off the TV and read a history book on the tour bus once in a while, because distinctions like that have now become pretty dang essential.)

But when I hear ”Where Were You,” it strikes me above all as an honest reaction — a direct communication between singer and audience, something that’s rare in any kind of popular music. Instead of exploiting grief, I think it does something normally reserved for poetry: It describes a vivid variety of the manifestations of grief, from sorrow to rage to depression to political activism.

Similarly, another new country hit, Montgomery Gentry’s ”Didn’t I,” which you can find on the soundtrack to the new Mel Gibson film ”We Were Soldiers,” is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard in the combination of bitterness and patriotism felt by many Vietnam War veterans. It borrows its low, sinuous guitar-line from Southern rock, but its sentiment is as country as Merle Haggard’s ”Okie From Muskogee.” In fact, it shares with Haggard’s song a daring challenge thrown down to its listeners: When the duo of Montgomery Gentry hits the stark chorus, ”Didn’t I burn, didn’t I bleed enough for you/I faced your fears, felt pain/So you didn’t have to,” it’s a song that forces you to choose sides. If you’re old enough to remember that divisive war, it insists that you reevaluate your stand on how the vets were treated when they came home; if you?re too young to remember, it introduces you to the world of hurt that war — and other wars — inflict upon everyone involved.

I’d say that between ”Where Were You” and ”Didn’t I,” there’s at least a year’s-worth of pop-culture debate to be sparked throughout America. Where do you stand?