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Alan Jackson Small-town country singer finds his place in the big time

For country music neo-superstar Alan Jackson, who performs at the Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival, near Cumberland, Saturday, it all must still seem like a dream come true.

After all, it was only five or six years ago that the tall, blue-eyed, blonde, Marlboro Man-handsome singer and his wife Denise reluctantly decided to sell their house in their hometown of Newnan, Ga., and relocate to Nashville.

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"It was a big jump for me," admits Jackson, who this year won the Academy of Country Music's New Male Singer award, was the Nashville Network's 1990 Star of Tomorrow, and was chosen by the editors of R&R;, a leading music trade magazine, as Best New Artist of 1990.

"I'd lived in that little old town my whole life, and had never traveled much. Just moving away from my family was a really big step," he says.

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"And it wasn't like I was born with a guitar in my hand. About all I ever heard growing up was gospel music. I never even went to my first country concert until I was 20 or so. In my little town, a music career was just something that seemed out of reach."

Needless to say, Jackson not only found the courage to reach for the brass ring of stardom; within a surprisingly short time, he's grasped it. His debut LP, "Here in the Real World," released in early 1990, topped the million sales (platinum) mark and resulted in the four consecutive No. 1 singles: "Wanted (One Good-Hearted Woman)," "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," "I'd Love You All Over Again," and the LP title tune.

His second LP, "Don't Rock the Juke Box," released just a couple of months ago, is already steaming toward platinum certification at a much faster pace than the first album. Meanwhile, the LP title tune, released as a single, went barreling to the top of the country charts.

Thus, in a relatively short time, Jackson has catapulted from obscurity to that heady stratosphere of success occupied by best-selling country singers like George Strait, Clint Black, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks and Ricky Van Shelton.

"I really didn't expect things to take off as fast as they did," Jackson muses with off-the-cuff humility. (He describes himself as "the same good ol' average boy I've always been," and says he still enjoys such hobbies as bass fishing and tinkering with cars in this spare time.) "Sometimes the whole thing just doesn't quite grab me. But then all of a sudden, I'll just be sittin' somewhere and it'll kinda sneak up on me, and I'll realize just how lucky I am."

Not that Jackson has much time to sit around pinching himself these days: he's been working the road tirelessly in the coveted position of opening act for such blue chip performers as Strait, The Judds, Reba McEntire, and his old friend, Travis. (Jackson has known Travis since his own early "starving artist" days in Nashville, and Travis recently recorded several songs that he and Jackson co-wrote.)

Here and there along the tour circuit, Jackson's rich and countrified baritone and his exceedingly good looks have inspired minor riots as screaming female fans have held siege to his tour bus or attempted to storm the stage during his performances.

"I remember the first time it happened, at Billy Bob's [honky-tonk club in Fort Worth, Texas] the crowd's reaction was so wild it scared me and my band half to death," the 32-year-old singer says, laughing with mild astonishment and slight embarrassment. "I was shocked to see just what a difference a hit record can make! People kind of tend to put you on a pedestal or something, which they shouldn't.

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"I mean, for several years before [the record deal] we were playing every honky-tonk from Miami to the Mississippi and that never happened. And 10 years ago, when I was driving a forklift in a K-mart warehouse, I guarantee you there wasn't anybody screaming at me.

"But I guess I've sorta gotten used to it," he says, shrugging. "I'm flattered to have people that are interested in me and the music and everything. I'd sure rather have 'em doing that than throwing rocks at me!"

Such star-struck adulation might cause ego problems in an artist with a less finely honed sense of his own roots. But, by all indications, Jackson's feet are still planted firmly on the ground.

After all, it was only a few years ago that he was just another unknown singer making the rounds of Nashville's record labels with his demo tapes, getting turned down flat by all of them. One major label even sent him packing with the assurance that he simply didn't have "star potential."

"Things like that were hard to swallow," he admits with a matter-of-fact drawl devoid of any noticeable bitterness. "But a lot of times you've just got to realize that it's only one man's opinion, and not let it stop you from keeping right on trying."

Jackson was born in 1958, the youngest of five children, all the rest of them girls. He admits that on account of this he was trifle spoiled.

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"We never had that much money, but I sure did get a lot of attention," grins the singer whose first child, a daughter named Mattie, was born last year. "My parents are great people. My father's just a real special guy -- maybe the only truly good man I've ever known. He's as honest as they come. I'll be happy to turn out half as good."

By his own account, Jackson's formative years were care-free and innocent. He doesn't remember spending much time fantasizing about a musical career. And though he's since written many of his own No. 1 singles, he confesses that, "I never even tried writing songs until around the time I decided to move to Nashville, about five or six years ago.

"Fact is," he adds. "I was way more interested in cars and girls for the whole rest of my life than I was writing songs. I did start singing when I was a teen-ager. I did a little duet thing with a friend of mine, and we later had a band and played on weekends. But I always had a day job."

A long string of day jobs, in fact. He built houses, drove the K-mart forklift, fixed shoes, sold janitorial supplies, worked in a shoe store, furniture store, and a barbecue restaurant. But most of his gainful employment revolved around sales and automobiles, or -- more often -- both.

"I'd buy and sell cars," says the singer, whose most recent purchase, along with a GMC truck, is a late-model, super-charged, customized Mustang GT convertible. "I've done that all my life. I worked in a Ford dealership and in a used-car dealership, and had my own wholesalers license for the state of Georgia. My daddy's a mechanic, and I kind of grew up in the garage, foolin' with cars -- paintin' 'em, fixin' 'em up. Cars, boats, motorcycles, you name it.

"I know I've owned about two hundred cars, boats and motorcycles since I was fifteen," he flashes that sheepish grin again. "And I'm still counting."

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Alan Jackson performs at the Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival, near Cumberland, Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Tickets for the concert and other festival activities are $25. For more information, call 1-301-724-2511.

Rocky Gap festival

One of the regions most popular summer events, the Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival, is scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Rocky Gap State Park, near Cumberland.

The festival offers lakeside concert performances, music workshops, Appalachian crafts, children's activities and all-day access to swimming and picnicking in the 3,200 acre park.

The family atmosphere also attracts magicians, mimes and storytellers.

Along with 32 regional artisans and 19 musical acts from all traditions, country music headliners, including Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, will make appearances.

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"We truly give a festival," says Dave Williams, one of the event's promoters. "We have a wonderful range of activities for young, active families who want a full day of community-based events." Last year's festival attracted 35,000 people, Williams says.

Tickets are available by calling the festival ticket office at 1-301-724-2511. Tickets are $20 for Friday, $25 for Saturday, $20 for Sunday, and $2 all weekend for children 8 and younger.

Following is a schedule of performances. But keep in mind that

performances are subject to change:

FRIDAY

4:30-5:30 p.m. -- Donnie Gibson and the Country Grass Band, local country music performers.

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6:30-7:30 p.m. -- Jordanaires, Elvis Presley's former band, and

Sandy Kelly.

8-9:15 p.m. -- Willie Nelson.

SATURDAY

11 a.m.-noon -- Northern Lights, progressive bluegrass.

12:30-1:30 p.m. -- Beusoleil, Cajun band.

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2-3 p.m. -- David Grisman Quintet, fusion bluegrass.

p.m. -- Country Currents, U.S. Navy country/bluegras band.

5-6 p.m. -- Joe Diffie, country singer/songwriter.

6:30-7:30 p.m. -- Alan Jackson, country singer/songwriter.

'8-9 p.m. -- Jerry Lee Lewis.

SUNDAY

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11 a.m.-noon -- Shady Grove Band, bluegrass.

12:30-1:30 p.m. -- Lost and Found Bluegrass Band.

p.m. -- Alan Munde & Country Gazette, bluegrass.

3:30-4:30 p.m. -- Pam Tillis.

5-6 p.m. -- Tammy Wynette.

6:30-7:30 -- Waylon Jennings.

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Directions: Take I-70 west to Hancock. At Hancock take I-68 west (formerly Route 48) to Rocky Gap State Park exit.


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