And today we’re taking it back to November 7, 2001 – less than two months after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11. The country was still in shock, still angry at what had happened. But mostly, everyone was just hurting – including Alan Jackson.
On October 28, 2001, just a little over the week before the CMA Awards, Alan had woken up in the middle of the night with an idea for a song. He got out of bed – still in his underwear – and sang the chorus into a handheld recorder so he wouldn’t forget it:
“I’m just a singer of simple songs I’m not a real political man I watch CNN but I’m not sure I could tell you The difference in Iraq and Iran…”
He stayed home the next day and finished the song. But he didn’t want to record it, because he didn’t want it to seem like he was trying to take advantage of a tragedy like 9/11. It was his wife and his producer, Keith Stegall, who convinced Alan to take the song to the studio and record it.
According to Joe Galante, then-chairman of Alan’s record group, they knew immediately that the song was something special:
“We just kind of looked at one another. Nobody spoke for a full minute.”
Alan was scheduled to perform his then-current single, “Where I Come From,” at the CMA Awards in just a few days. But shortly before the awards, Alan’s manager played the new song for executives at the Country Music Association.
They knew they had to change up their plans. So instead, Alan took the stage seated in front of a full orchestra and delivered the first-ever performance of “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” in front of a grieving country.
The response was immediate – and overwhelming. Alan got a standing ovation from the crowd at the CMA Awards, and the next day radio stations had pulled the live performance from the television broadcast to play on the air.
With the sudden overwhelming demand for the song, his label rush released the studio version of the song and sent it out on November 26, 2001. And they pushed up the release date for his upcoming album, Drive, from May of 2002 to January of the following year.
Alan recently reflected back on his CMA Awards performance of the song, admitting that it was a tough performance for him.
“I just remember — other than being relieved that I got through it — that I just felt very proud that it seemed to cause a reaction in people. I was proud that I got to do it, and that it seemed like it meant something.”
And he also admits that he was a little uncomfortable with the spotlight that was put on him for that song:
“I’m not really big on chasing that spotlight, and it just put a lot of tension on me for a while and made me feel like it was hard to follow.
It’s like they put you up on a pedestal, and I kept saying, ‘Look, I’m just a songwriter. I’m just a singer. It’s just a simple song. I’m not trying to get up on my soapbox. I’m just an old country guy who writes and sings songs.’”
But nonetheless, the song would go on to win Song of the Year and Single of the Year at both the CMA Awards and the ACM Awards in 2002, and it would also land Alan a Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
More than the awards, though, the song was able to offer some kind of healing at a time when the country was still reeling and trying to make sense of such a horrific tragedy.
And it also provided us with one of the greatest performances in the history of the CMA Awards.