Some of country’s biggest stars lauded their own “singer of simple songs” Thursday night at a taping for CMT Giants honoring Alan Jackson.
“He has one of the greatest country voices we’ve ever had,” Martina McBride told PEOPLE about Jackson, who has sold more than 50 million albums and has had 33 No.-1 hits. “He writes about what he lives. He’s just the real deal.”
Brad Paisley kicked off the tribute with a rendition of Jackson’s hit “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” and George Strait brought the audience at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to its feet with his version of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a song Jackson wrote after 9/11 in which he declares “I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man.”
The 6’4” singer joked to the crowd that when CMT first approached him about doing Giants, “I thought it was ’cause I was so tall!”
Of the honor, the Jackson told PEOPLE, “Even though I know my track record, you still don’t feel like you deserve something of this stature.”
The star, who turned 50 recently, attributes his career longevity to a simple approach. “I live in an unreal world, but I think I still understand real life and what the people who come to my shows go through,” he says. “Just the fact that I remained what I am and have continued to do traditional country music, maybe that’s why I still sell a few records and tickets.”
Taylor Swift, who calls Jackson “one of my songwriting heroes,” sang his tune “Drive” a song she says that “really bonded my dad and I.” (Dad Scott admitted to tearing up during her rehearsal.)
The show, which will air Dec. 6 on CMT, closed with Jackson’s latest hit, “Country Boy,” sung by Paisley, Jackson, Strait and Dierks Bentley, who brought a special guest with him backstage: 3½-week-old daughter Evie.
“It’s her first concert, and I had to bring her,” he says. “You’ve got Alan Jackson, George Strait and the others – you can’t beat this one.”