Achy-Breaky Hearts

updated 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

THERE'S NOTHING THAT COUNTRY MUSIC FANS LOVE BETTER than a good, tear-jerkin' ballad about honky-tonk and heartbreak. But given the recent news out of Nashville, even the most devoted enthusiast may be finding that life has been veering a little too close to art of late. On Feb. 20, just three weeks after a Nevada judge found Nashville's trouble-prone Tracy Lawrence guilty of domestic battery against his wife of six months—former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader Stacie Drew—came even more surprising news: the 19-year storybook marriage of Alan Jackson to his high school sweetheart Denise had also hit the skids.

Given the pair's longstanding image as country's Golden Couple, the confirmation from Jackson's publicist that the multiplatinum-selling heartthrob had moved out of the couple's 25,000-square-foot dream house left some friends dumbfounded. "Their marriage was perfect as far as I was concerned," says veteran radio and TV broadcaster Ralph Emery. "As to their having problems, I was as shocked as anybody." It was a partnership that began in 1976 when the two met as teenagers at Georgia's Newnan High School. (After Jackson made it big, Denise tracked down his '55 T-bird convertible, bought it and gave it to him.) In 1985, Denise, then a flight attendant, made an approach to Glen Campbell at Atlanta's airport, which in turn led to a Nashville songwriting job for Jackson. In 1990 his first album, Here in the Real World, sold more than 2 million copies. Throughout Jackson's rise, he and Denise—who have three children: Mattie Denise, 7, Alexandra Jane, 4, and Dani Grace, 6 months—were known for sharing their burdens. "There is just one person I need to thank," Jackson said when named the Country Music Association's 1995 Entertainer of the Year. "I married her when she was too young to know any better."

Still, rumors that Jackson had taken up with fellow performer Faith Hill during a 33-city tour began to fly two years ago. Denise vehemently denied any affair, and Hill went on to marry singer Tim McGraw. But apparently Jackson's marriage was foundering. "Alan was out on the road all the time and didn't see his wife or family much anymore," says one industry insider.

Despite those fissures, the Jackson marriage seemed solid compared to that of the Lawrences. It was last Sept. 13 in Primm, Nev.—just six months after their posh Dallas wedding—that the marriage exploded. According to a police report, Lawrence pushed Stacie into a hotel room wall during an argument, hit her twice in the head with his fist, pulled out a handful of her hair and said, "I'll kill you, you bitch." Lawrence, who filed for divorce after the assault, was found guilty of misdemeanor spousal abuse Jan. 27 by a Nevada judge and ordered to pay a $500 fine to a local women's shelter.

As Lawrence's fans know, this is not the first time that his private life has drawn headlines. In 1994 he was arrested for firing a .357 Magnum into the air during an argument on a Tennessee interstate. But his latest run-in with the law is the first to threaten his career. Atlantic Records Nashville president Rick Blackburn announced last month that recording plans for Lawrence have been suspended "until his personal matters reach a resolve."

As for a reconciliation, Stacie says her husband must first undergo counseling. "I always thought we could work through anything. But the man I married is not the one you see now." For their part, neither Denise Jackson nor her husband has filed for divorce. "It's very difficult being married to an entertainer," says a friend. "And Denise has an unusual understanding of what it takes."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
BEVERLY KEEL and JANE SANDERSON in Nashville and BOB STEWART and LAUREL CALKINS in Texas

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