That wasn't always the case for the high school sweethearts, who began dating in 1976 in Newnan, Ga. Nineteen years into their marriage in 1998, Jackson had an affair that unraveled their already-troubled relationship. "We were just kids when we started out," says the 49-year-old Grammy winner, who sings about his heartfelt regret on songs like "I Wish I Could Back Up" off his just-released album Good Time
. "We didn't ever have the chance to fall in love as adults and to learn who you are before making a commitment. I think we lost some of that original feeling. I did anyway."
After a four-month separation and couples therapy, they reconciled. "We had this unhealthy way of relating to one another—I was needy and felt incompetent and weak, and he had to take on the role of decision maker," says Denise, who chronicled their marital struggles in her 2007 bestseller It's All About Him
. "We didn't know how to fix our relationship. Now I feel like we are finally two equal partners who love and respect each other." Though his wife's book initially worried Jackson ("I thought fans might think I'm terrible"), he says, "I'm human, and it's a really nice story. Compared to other celebrities, this is very mild!"
The couple renewed their vows on their anniversary in December of 1998 and enjoyed a second honeymoon phase, which they continue to stoke by keeping sunsets at the top of their to-do list. "We learned that if a relationship's going to be good, you have to make it a priority," says Denise, 47. "Even if it's just getting up 30 minutes before the children do in the morning, having our coffee and being together uninterrupted. Or sitting on the porch in the afternoon for 10 minutes to catch up on our day." While Denise loves the impromptu boat trips, picnics and scenic drives her husband plans, she even finds Alan's morning ritual of pouring boiling water into her mug to warm it before she drinks her coffee touching. "It seems like such a simple thing," she says, "but it means a lot."
So does their joint commitment to trying to keep their daughters humble (after all, Jackson used to sleep in the hallway of a cramped house as the son of a mechanic and a homemaker), despite their home's 12-car garage, boathouse and man-made waterfall. "Even though Denise and I have made a lot of money, we're not real socialites. We don't have big parties," he says of home life with Mattie, their 17-year-old who's likely to be valedictorian of her class; Ali, 14, who plays volleyball, basketball, softball and soccer; and Dani, a 10-year-old aspiring actress. "We just have the same old corn bread and peas I did when I was growing up." Of course, it's tough to keep the girls' wish lists from being pie in the sky. "We've always tried to teach them that we don't have more because we deserve more, and our position doesn't make us better than anyone else," says Denise. "But Dani thinks we can produce grand things. At the end of her Christmas list this year was 'Be in a movie!' I'm like, 'Okay, what else can you ask for?'" Still, Mom and Dad did find a creative way to fulfill Dani's wish: They let her have a cameo in the video for his latest hit, "Small Town Southern Man."
As for living with four women, Jackson, who grew up with four sisters, is very in touch with his feminine side—though you wouldn't know it from his stoic, country-boy demeanor. Every night the singer dotes on the family's 4-lb. Yorkie, Coco Chanel, feeding her and removing the pink pigtail ribbon from her head. "It gets tight, and she scratches at it," he explains. But he does have his limits, says Denise: "He won't hold her in public when she has clothes on. He's like, 'That's going a little too far—I've got an image to uphold!'"
In matters outside of pooch pampering, though, husband and wife are definitely in step. Says Jackson: "We're so connected after all these years. She can read my mind—it's the truth! I can always say, 'You know what I want for supper?' and she'll name it." (A typical meal born of intuition? Baked chicken, deviled eggs, biscuits and banana pudding.) And Denise adores his thoughtfulness. "He goes way beyond the expensive diamonds and all the stuff he gives me," says Denise. "It's the valentine he writes on a paper plate from our kitchen and wraps in a red string—those kinds of things melt my heart. I don't think that most men are like that. I ended up with a great catch." One homemade card Alan crafted for their recent 28th anniversary may sum it up best. On the front was a photo he took of that sunset view they've shared so many evenings at Sweetbriar, and scrawled inside was Jackson's message in gold pen: "The best," he wrote, "keeps gettin' better."
In quieter moments behind the barn on the 142-acre Franklin, Tenn., spread known as Sweetbriar, where Alan Jackson and his wife, Denise, live with their three daughters, the couple like to watch the sunset from a stone patio the country star built just for such alone time. "We'll get the wine and sit in these Adirondack chairs, being together in one of the beautiful places we have," says Denise. "He's so much more romantic than me."