With one of the most celebrated careers in the history of country music, Alan Jackson is often asked if he still has anything left to accomplish. Until now, he hasn’t dared to speak his heart’s desire.
“I never say the Country Music Hall of Fame because I just felt like that was kind of pretentious, you know, to think that I deserve to be in there,” he said, standing in the Hall of Fame Rotunda in Nashville. “I never say that. But now I can say this is about the last dream on the list right here.”
He could say it because, on Wednesday, that “last dream” finally came true when the Country Music Association announced Jackson is among the 2017 class of Hall of Fame inductees. The 58-year-old Georgia native joins the late guitar slinger Jerry Reed, who will be inducted as the “veterans-era artist,” and “The Gambler” songwriter Don Schlitz, who is being honored in the category dedicated to non-performers.
Jackson will be inducted as the “modern-era artist” – a fact that amused a man who no longer charts singles (though he still draws thousands to his live concerts).
“I heard them say I was ‘modern era,’” he said, chuckling. “That’s the biggest honor I’ve ever heard in a long time. I’m still in the modern era. I love that! Very cool.”
In his acceptance remarks, Jackson spoke movingly of his late father, recalling that his own love for country music really began at age 5 “when Daddy won a radio” – words he immortalized in his 1990 hit “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” (The radio, a prize in an employee contest, eventually was featured in a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit.)
Jackson also remembered the many hours he spent with “Daddy Gene” watching Hee Haw: “Out of the blue one day – I think Buck Owens had just played and sang something – and Daddy said, ‘You oughta do something like that.’ I didn’t think that much about it. It was just odd for it to come out of him … My wife says things that your father says to you really have an effect on you. I think it did. It probably pushed me a little bit, planted those seeds in early days.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, Jackson built a colossal career with his new brand of traditional country, amassing nine multi-platinum albums, 30 No. 1 hits, and three CMA Entertainer of the Year awards.
Still, Jackson told PEOPLE, he was shocked when he learned he would finally be in the Hall of Fame. To deliver the news, his manager created a ruse, telling Jackson that representatives from his record label had called a meeting.
The request puzzled Jackson. “They never want to talk with me about anything,” he joked, “and so I thought they were probably gonna drop me off the label or something!”
Within moments of the meeting’s start, Sarah Trahern, the CMA’s CEO, walked in and revealed the real reason for the get-together.
“Everybody’s been telling me for years, ‘You’ll be in the Hall of Fame,’” Jackson said. “I don’t care what you do, you don’t ever feel like you’re worthy enough. … I didn’t know what to say. I just kind of stumbled around and said, ‘Man, that’s so cool.’”
Later, Jackson said, he took the time to study the list of the 130 names he’ll join, and “it really hit me.”
“Most of them are heroes of mine,” he said, “and you feel like your name’s in there … That’s crazy. It was pretty wild.”
FROM COINAGE: The Real Cost of Going to Coachella
As for his wife of 38 years, Denise, “I think she was more happy than I was,” Jackson said. And while their three grown daughters are accustomed to their dad winning awards, he said “they know this is the highest honor.”
Unlike other awards – where there’s always a new winner next year – the Hall of Fame is “permanent,” Jackson noted. “To be in here, it’s just amazing. My grandbabies can come in here and see this.”
Jackson, Reed and Schlitz will be formally inducted at an invitation-only ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in October.