The Who, What And Why of 'Where Were You?'
September 11, 2014
Thirteen years and a couple days removed, everybody still remembers where they were and what they were doing on that terrifying, traumatic and historic morning of September 11th, 2001.
But where were you when you first heard Alan Jackson's epochal, "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?"
Here's a refresher: Only 57 days after the attack and a mere 10 days after writing it, Jackson played it on the nationally televised 2001 CMA Awards Show.
Post 9/11/01, hundreds of songs have been written and recorded about the World Trade Center attack; however for my money - and with all due respect to Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and other great artists - none have captured every conceivable, raw emotion from that day more thoroughly than Jackson's sublime, impeccably structured, "Where Were You."
If ever there was an example of inspiration over perspiration as it pertains to the craft of songwriting, "Where Were You" is textbook. Jackson has always credited the song to divine intervention. As then-Sony Nashville Chairman Joe Galante recently shared with me, Jackson explained the process behind "Where Were You" this way: "I can't thank anybody except God. It was an inspiration and it just came to me."
Whatever the delivery system, legend has it that the tune arrived inside Jackson's head sometime during the wee hours of October 28th, 2001. As it was fresh in his mind and before the sun came up, Jackson put the melody and opening lines down on tape, finishing the song later that day.
Just days out from the CMAs, on which Jackson was set to play his current single, "It's Alright To Be A Redneck," Galante remembers a call from Jackson's manager, Nancy Russell. "She said, 'We've got a song we want to play you; I think you really need to hear this,'" Galante recalls. "We heard the song -- and obviously this was late October -- we sat there and it was just quiet; I think we were all overcome. Alan was not in the room. I looked at Nancy and I said, 'We've gotta put this out.' All of us agreed."
Russell remembers Jackson feeling conflicted about the song, saying, "He truly felt the song just came to him, so I think he was really kind of shy about sharing it. Alan had said to me, 'I trust you to do the right thing with this song.' He did not want it exploited at all."
Galante was on the same page. "He totally got it," says Russell. "He was really respectful of everything; I can't tell you how much I appreciated Joe being our label head at that time."
Next stop, the CMA offices, for a conversation about calling an audible on Jackson's CMA performance. "There were four or five people on the TV committee who went with Nancy and me over to CMA," says Galante. "We played the song and there wasn't anybody in the room who said, 'Nah, we can't do this."
Adds Russell, "Everyone was blown away; all these years later, I can still feel it. It was intense. I remember [then-CMA Exec. Dir.] Ed Benson saying there was something in that song that everybody did or felt; he talked about how he had pulled his Bible out, just like the line in the song." Galante remembers everyone in the room agreeing, "This song needs to be on the show.' The rest was kind of history."
The 2001 CMAs proved to be a highly emotional show and not just because of the powerful music that was to be showcased that night. The after-effects of September 11th remained palpable - even in Nashville. "We had bomb-sniffing dogs go through the Opry house that night," says Galante. "So there was drama that night already."
In addition to Jackson's game-changer of a song, Diamond Rio performed "One More Day" on the show and The Dixie Chicks debuted "Travelin' Soldier" from their "Home" album. Diamond Rio's tune was on its way to the top of the charts at the time but the recent events of 9/11 gave "One More Day" an even more poignant message. Ditto "Travelin' Soldier," which eventually became a #1 record for the Chicks, though it wasn't released as a single until more than a year later, following "Landslide" and "Long Time Gone."
But it was Jackson and "Where Were You" that proved to be the single-biggest emotional takeaway from the show - and its money performance segment. While both are powerful, "One More Day" and "Travelin' Soldier" contain metaphorical references relating to 9/11. "Where Were You" was written specifically about that experience.
"What he did explored the entire range of emotions we had, and it just spoke to everybody," says Galante. "People were beside themselves. We felt like somebody had really encapsulated everything we were feeling but just couldn't verbalize. If you remember, too, during his performance, he was nervous and emotional. I don't know how he got through it, looking at the audience and seeing people, because nobody had heard it before."
Indeed, it was a genuinely emotional, difficult experience for Jackson, remembers Russell, and not just during the live TV moment. "Afterwards, he just went in to this little room - not even a dressing room. It was tiny, like a janitor's room or office or something and he was just shaking. It was heavy. It was really heavy."
I was programming KZLA/Los Angeles at the time and made it standard practice to record the entire CMA telecast, in order to play back pivotal performances the next morning. We already had Diamond Rio in rotation, but after hearing Jackson and The Chicks - and by that I really mean as these songs unfolded live -- we decided to not only play them on 9/12, but add them into current rotation immediately. Reaction was instantaneous and 100% positive. They both tested through the roof from the get-go.
And we weren't the only ones who aired Jackson's song frequently the day after. Country radio swallowed up "Where Were You" and of course, the label already knew what it had. "We stopped working 'Redneck,' and this song came out," says Galante. "The song hit #1 in six weeks and we were scrambling to get the album done and out. The reaction to it is now history."
While it was a ginormous, multi-week #1 at Country radio and went on to win Single and Song of the Year honors from both the CMA and ACM, 'Where Were You" was not a hit outside the format, which graphically illustrates the difference between Country's mass-appeal potential in 2014 versus 2001.
"As big as that record was -- and it was HUGE -- it had not made it to the industry beyond what we had," says Galante. "To me, that was always the issue. This isn't about a format, this is about a moment. But it was typical of what happened."
And so was the process leading up to Jackson's performance of the song on the Grammys, months after the CMAs. Unlike the CMA brass though, Grammy producers first insisted the song -- which clocked in at over four minutes -- be trimmed in length by cutting verses. Says Galante, "We were like, 'Oh my God, you guys have lost your freakin minds! No! We're not cutting the damn song!"
Jackson's camp ultimately prevailed and when the song was played to the Grammy audience, it was brand new to that entire crowd.
And the reaction?
"It was the same thing that happened with the CMA show," recalls Galante. "I remember people like Mary J. Blige standing up with tears streaming down her face."
Similar to the Grammy runaround, when Pop radio powerhouse WHTZ (Z100)/New York called and wanted to play "Where Were You" with a stipulation that the steel guitar be taken out of the mix, Galante's first reaction was "That's not gonna happen." He reluctantly called Jackson and vividly recalls their brief exchange: "It was silence for about five seconds and then [Alan] just said, 'Ya know. I kinda like steel.' That was the end of the conversation."
Similar to Galante, as Jackson's manager, Nancy Russell took to heart Jackson's original statement, "I trust you to do the right thing with this." Russell fully understood her responsibility. "People were talking about what a patriotic song it was," she remembers. "It was never a patriotic song in the sense of it. There were people who wanted to do photo shoots of him with the American flag in the background and that sort of thing. And it's not that he isn't a proud American, but it wasn't like the boot-in-your-ass kind of thing. It really was just an expression of the moment. And so that was something I was very careful of -- not to turn it in to some sort of rallying cry. I have to say that there are a lot of people who would have taken that song and done something different with it than what Joe and I did. That's why he was such a great partner to work with."
Finally, I asked Galante why "Where Were You" stands the test of time as the consummate reflection of 9/11. "He spoke for the entire Country about how we felt at that moment as Americans; how we all felt sadness but love and support. And it just came out in the lyrics perfectly. It was probably the best written song that I can remember in modern times."