Honky-Tonk Hero

updated 09/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/02/1991 01:00AM

ALAN JACKSON KNEW THAT BEING A country singer was a tough way to make a living. He knew about the long bus rides and the lowdown honky-tonks. But he didn't know how tough life could be until love-crazed fans started swooning over his long blond hair, baby blue eyes and lanky 6'4" body. Last year in Kentucky, he recalls, "one fan jumped on me and put her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist. And," he adds in his soft drawl, "she wasn't no small woman neither."

Not that Jackson really minds being pelted with lingerie onstage. It comes with the territory when you look the way he does—and have the success he's having. His 1989 debut album, Here in the Real World, sold more than a million copies and produced four No. 1 singles. The title track from his current release, Don't Rock the Jukebox, held the top spot for three weeks this summer, and next month Jackson has a good shot at taking home a few of Nashville's prestigious Country Music Association awards (he's up for six).

With his traditional country sound—and a knack for writing classic anthems of heartbreak and honky-tonks—the 32-year-old Jackson is at his best when singing about his own down-home roots. He's worked as a car salesman, home builder and forklift operator. And while he has traded in his Nashville apartment for a sprawling 5,500-square-foot farmhouse in fashionable Brentwood, Tenn. (just a holler away from Dolly Parton's colonial mansion), Jackson insists he's still "just a simple guy.... I feel like the same ole fella who worked under the hood of a car." When not on the road, he spends his time at home with Denise, his wife of 12 years, and their 15-month-old daughter, Mattie, watching country music videos and riding two newly acquired horses. And he still feels compelled to pick up stray pennies and put them in a glass jar for his daughter. "when I was growing up we never did have anything," he says. "If I see a penny lying there, I feel it's wasted."

The only son of Eugene Jackson, a mechanic, and his homemaker wife, Mattie, Alan grew up in Newnan, Ga., in a house his granddad converted from a tool shed. He slept in a hallway until he was 10 and the eldest of his four sisters moved out.

As a kid, Jackson loved country music (particularly George Jones) but didn't think he could make a living at it. He attended South Georgia College, married Denise and worked, he says proudly, "in the real world." On weekends, though, he played with a local country band. In 1985 Denise got him his big break. A flight attendant for Piedmont Airlines at the time, she cornered Glen Campbell in the Atlanta airport and asked for his help. "She was so nice, I gave her my card," Campbell says. "When I heard his songs, I said, 'This kid has potential.' "

A week later, an encouraged Jackson packed up and moved to Nashville, taking a job in the mailroom of the Nashville Network cable channel. Within a year, he was writing songs for Campbell's music publishing company and performing his own music on the road.

Though Jackson will admit that his good looks probably had something to do with his success, he says the image wasn't planned. He wears his hair long, because "when I was playing in them dives, it got to where I just never did get my hair cut." As for the trademark white hat, he initially acquired it to hide the scars above his left eyebrow, reminders of childhood run-ins with a door and a coffee table.

For her part, Denise says she's gotten used to being married to a sex symbol. "I never dreamed my husband would be the heartthrob of America, but it makes me feel good that I spotted him all those years ago," she says. Despite the adulation, she thinks he'll keep the same hat size. And so does he. The furor, he says, is over his music. "Nobody," he says, "screamed for me when I was drivin' that forklift, except the boss."

CYNTHIA SANZ
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville

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