What even the biggest Alan Jackson fan might not know is that the country icon got his big break on a TV talent competition show — just not as a contestant.
Long before American Idol, The Voice and Nashville Star was TNN’s You Can Be a Star, a Nashville-based country music program that ran from 1983 to 1992. It was the show that helped launch Trisha Yearwood’s career, after she placed second in the competition in 1988. Fellow country legend Randy Travis was actually rejected from the show after sending in his audition tape. And on a 1986 episode, Jackson was plucked from the audience to sing a few verses of the George Jones classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
The 27–year–old Jackson — who worked in TNN’s mailroom at the time and just went by “Al” — only performed to segue into the episode’s next commercial break. But it was a short preview to what has become a long, unparalleled career. His raw, emotional delivery caught the attention of singer-songwriter Keith Stegall, who was one of the show’s judges and is now a renowned producer. And thus was born a musical partnership that is still making hit after hit today. Stegall has been behind the board for all but one of Jackson’s 20 studio albums.
After his You Can Be a Star appearance, Jackson scored a staff writer position with Glen Campbell’s publishing company and then went on to become the very first act signed to Arista Records’ country label. His first single, “Blue Blooded Woman” was released in late 1989, with his first big hit, “Here in the Real World” following a few months later.
And just like Stegall, George Jones has been a staple throughout Jackson’s career. The Georgia native’s hits, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Murder on Music Row” and “Just Playin’ Possum” all namecheck the late icon, and in 1999, the neo traditionalist stepped out on a limb for Jones at the CMA Awards, stopping his “Pop a Top” performance halfway through the song to cover Jones’ “Choices.” (The move came after CMA officials asked Jones to trim the song down for his awards performance, prompting him to back out.) Jackson also sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at the very end of Jones’ funeral.