Alan Jackson's mother had been after him for 10 years to make a gospel record. Last year, when the country superstar's father-in-law died, he recorded "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" for the funeral. Then the whole family got after him, too.
So he went to work.
He and his wife, Denise, went through an old Baptist hymnal they had in the house, choosing the songs they remembered and liked best growing up in Newnan, Ga. They narrowed it down to 30 and then to 15.
The result, his new CD, "Precious Memories," hit stores Tuesday.
He could have dug up some obscure hymns for his new gospel album, or he could have jazzed up the old songs with fresh arrangements or given them a blues spin. But he didn't do any of that. He recorded standards like "How Great Thou Art" and "Blessed Assurance" as a Christmas gift for his mother and kept them as simple and pure as he remembered them.
"I wanted to make them feel like they did when we sang them in church," Jackson said.
Jackson, who has sold more than 44 million albums since his 1989 debut, performed all of "Precious Memories" Monday at the 113-year-old Ryman Auditorium, a former gospel tabernacle and home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974.
The Ryman's stained-glass windows glowed as Jackson, accompanied by a four-piece band and two harmony singers, converted the hall into a church revival with fans singing and clapping in the wooden pews.
While recording the songs, Jackson never intended for anyone but his family and friends to hear them, and had made up 100 CDs as Christmas gifts. His wife and two of their daughters sang on one song "Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus," and Jackson shot the photo of the country church on the cover.
RCA Label Group Chairman Joe Galante heard the recordings and liked how intimate and emotional they sounded. It didn't hurt either that Brad Paisley — Jackson's label mate on Arista Nashville — had a huge hit with "When I Get Where I'm Going," a spiritual song that would fit next to any of these hymns.
"People seem to have a hunger for those things that not only reinforce their faith but give them hope. Certainly, this record has that feeling to it," Galante said.
While Jackson didn't have reservations about putting out such a personal record, he did worry that fans might get the wrong impression about his musical direction. It's one thing for a country singer past his prime to cut a gospel record, and another for a contemporary star like Jackson to do it.
"In the past I've seen artists in the country field who've decided they want to be a little more active in Christian and gospel music, and there's nothing wrong with that," said Jackson, who is finishing up a mainstream album for release later this year. "But I thought if I'm going to be a mainstream country act I don't want people to get confused and think I'm not doing country music anymore."
Jackson, whose sound is rooted in the old-school country of his musical heroes George Jones, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, writes most of his own songs. In 2002 he won a Grammy for "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," a touching rumination on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Like many country singers, his early exposure to music came in church. He sang in the choir and was drawn to the sound of the pipe organ.
Today, at 47, he worships in a church where most of the music is contemporary Christian. His daughters like the modern style, but he said he still misses the old hymns sometimes.
RCA is hoping his fans do, too.