Alan Jackson is not one to overshare. An imposing figure, he's tall and reserved with cowboy hat pulled down low over his eyes. Even that moustache is a little bit intimidating.
Yet once in a while, the country superstar lets loose with a burst of emotion so raw and heartfelt, it puts the lie to Jackson's stoic facade. Such was the case when Jackson first recorded "When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey)," a tribute to his wife Denise written while she was fighting cancer.
"When we went out to track it, it was a very gripping, emotional moment for everybody," Jackson's producer Keith Stegall said. "I think it touched everyone. We came back in and listened to the playback in the studio and there was a lot of wet eyes in the control room."
That was the first time anyone had heard the song, which appears on Jackson's new album "Thirty Miles West," out this week. The singer wasn't sure initially he wanted to share it with anybody, though. When he brought it to the studio, he'd never even played it for Denise.
"It's pretty emotional," Jackson said. "She already had enough to deal with and I didn't know if it would make her feel better or worse. I didn't share it with anybody. Just didn't want to, until we did it in the session that day."
The release of "Thirty Miles West" caps an emotional period for the 53-year-old and his family. His wife has now been cancer free for a year. And Jackson split with Arista Nashville, ending a two-decade partnership that produced more than 43 million albums sold. He signed with Capitol/EMI Records Nashville and "Thirty Miles West" is out on his own imprint, ACR.
The Jacksons' three daughters also are growing up. His oldest has graduated from college and his middle daughter is out of high school.
It's been a lot for Jackson and his wife to absorb.
"I think it definitely affected us both in more ways than we can understand," Jackson said. "You don't take anything for granted. Life is so fragile. You hear that people can survive any kind of trauma. It made us look at our values more _ what was important to us in our lives and what our plans are for the future and the rest of our lives. All that is affected by it. There can be some good that comes from all of it."
He wasn't just dealing with personal change. When it came time to record the album's 13 tracks, Jackson instituted a few more changes. He asked Stegall to bring in a new roster of players to fill out his studio crew after years of using the same team.
"He just felt like everybody kind of gets way too comfortable and he just wanted to shake things up a little bit," Stegall said. "I told him, `Man, I agree with you. Let's turn things upside down a little bit.' That's what we did."
Jackson also brought in Zac Brown Band to guest on "Dixie Highway." The two Georgia acts teamed up on Brown's "As She's Walking Away," which was a country No. 1.
"I like Zac and his band," Jackson said. "Before they even made any records they came and played me some of their stuff, the demos and things. I knew then they were a good bunch because they were writers and they played on their records. ... They're not just somebody who decided they wanted to be a singer and come to Nashville. They've were in Georgia for years paying their dues like people used to do. So they're a real act."