September 14, 1994 12:00 PM

Alan Jackson has gotten used to the flotilla of fan-filled boats that cruise by his new home on Center Hill Lake in central Tennessee. “Everybody asks me, ‘Don’t you get tired of people coming by your dock, hollerin’ at you, wavin’, takin’ pictures, screamin’ “Yee Haw” ‘?” The singer shakes his head and smiles. “Yeah,” he admits, “sometimes, like when your hair’s greasy and your stomach’s hangin’ over your swimsuit and they’re shootin’ a video of you.” But Jackson, 35, isn’t complaining. After all, not so long ago he and his wife, Denise, 34, were the ones bobbing on the water, craning their necks.

“When we moved to Nashville, we had an old ratty boat we’d put in Old Hickory Lake,” Jackson recalls with a laugh. “And we’d sit out there in front of Barbara Mandrell’s house [he affects a bumpkin drawl]: ‘Yeah, thar’s the place. Ah think that’s her. Ah see somebody walkin’ in the house!’ ”

These days Mandrell would be inviting them ashore. Since his 1989 debut, Jackson has sold more than 10 million copies of his five albums. The latest, Who I Am, quickly spawned a No. 1 single, “Summertime Blues.” And he is nominated for five 1994 CMA Awards, including Entertainer of the Year. “Garth [Brooks] is really a pop act, and in a class by himself,” says Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Foundation. “Alan is the current country king.” Remarks Jackson: “Sometimes Denise and I wake up and say, ‘This is like a movie or something.’ ”

Which raises the question of why the pair named the breathtakingly situated five-bedroom lake house they share with their daughters, Mattie, 4, and Ali, 1, the Real World, after the title of his debut album, Here in the Real World. “When you think about it,” he explains, leaning against the railing of his redwood deck, the lake spread beyond him, “my life outside here is pretty much not real, all the showbiz and all. This is more like the real world for me, in the woods with my family.”

The sprawling custom-built home (“We started out at one size, but then it just kept growin’,” says Alan of the design) also serves as a retreat from the pressures of recording and the road. Inside, knotty pine floors, exposed ceiling beams and rooms filled with comfortable antiques provide a homey feel, while outside, Jackson happily shows off his collection of self-described toys, including what he calls the James Bond hot tub built flush into the back deck (“Most hot tubs you put a cover on and you can’t walk on ’em,” he notes. “This one you can”). Down at the dock his armada awaits him: a bass boat, a fast ski boat and a 40-foot cabin cruiser.

When career and family demands start to pour over the psychic transom, the couple will sometimes leave their daughters home with their nanny—the Jacksons’ main residence is a colonial-style farmhouse outside Nashville—and escape to the lake house for a day or two alone. For all his love of the solitary pleasures of fishing and tinkering with cars—a skill acquired from his dad, a mechanic—Jackson enjoys emotional intimacy. “Alan says he can relate better to women than men,” says Denise. “It’s because he grew up with four older sisters. He’s very sensitive. He loves watching the sun set—he notices things like that. He’s kind of a romantic.”

But even romance takes work. For Jackson, who’s building the family a third home in Florida, the mini-getaways “help us communicate without distractions. If you want to keep that spark of romance you had in the beginning, you can. It’s just a little harder.”

That’s a lesson the pair learned rather quickly in 1990, as Alan’s career took off. “It’s very unsettling to have been married 10 years and just be a normal, private little couple—then all of a sudden, he’s this country hunk of America,” Denise admits. “You start having all these insecurities like, ‘How’s this going to I change him? Is he still going to want to be married ?’

“Within six months of that first hit single, he became very popular, we had our first baby—which really has an impact on a relationship—I quit my job [as a flight attendant], and we moved from a small apartment to a big house. All the life-changing things, other than death and divorce. Of course, that was kind of his honeymoon with his career—’Oh, isn’t this wonderful, exciting?’ But I didn’t really feel like I was a part of it because I was at home with a little baby. I felt like, ‘I’ve supported you [financially] for four years and now I don’t get to go out with you and do stuff because the baby’s here?’ It was a little bit of an adjustment for me.”

But the couple—who’ll celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this December—have learned to cope with those strains. “It’s all come full circle now,” says Denise. “Not that he doesn’t love his job, but it’s all come back to family and wanting to be here. He looks forward to having time off, and he wants us to be out there with him [on the road] if we can. You know, your priorities end up floating to the top.”

Those priorities are evident in Jackson’s music—he wrote “Let’s Get Back to Me and You” for Denise and “Job Description,” about missing his kids on the road, for Mattie and Ali—and in the gestures the couple make for each other. Last year, Denise spent months tracking down Alan’s first car, a white ’55 Thunderbird convertible he’d bought when he was 15, spent a full year restoring and then had to sell in 1979 to come up with the down payment for their first home. “That car was all I cared about,” says Jackson. “I drove it to high school, dated in it. It was like a member of the family.”

The car had meaning for Denise too, She was 16, about to start her junior year at Newnan (Ga.) High School, when Jackson, who had just graduated from Newnan (Class of ’76), first asked her out. “He had the T-bird, that was his biggest selling point, “she recalls. “I think what attracted him to me was that I didn’t go out with him the first time he asked me. But he called three or four months later, and I felt differently.” She smiles as she continues. “We were just typical high school kids. We’d get mad at each other and break up. He’d go date somebody else to make me mad; I’d date the quarterback to make him mad. But we ended up back together.”

On Christmas morning last year, Denise surprised him with the T-bird. “I think at first he thought I’d bought him another one, then he said, That looks like my car.’ I said, ‘Alan, that is your car.’ He lost it. He cried. He couldn’t even get out of the car for a minute.”

While Alan likes to joke about the gift—”I give her new stuff, she gives me an old used car”—it’s clear he values that Thunderbird and all it symbolizes more than his 17 other cars and trucks combined. “So my life is really like a fairy tale—I got my car back. What else can I have?” he muses. “I guess what’s been the savior for me is just realizing that all those things you wanted so bad aren’t gonna make you happy or keep you happy. I never thought I’d make a very good daddy—I just never have been real comfortable around children. But it’s been such a blessing. You gotta be happy with yourself and with your spouse and with your life. All the rest is just the icing on the cake.”

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