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ROOTS
ALAN JACKSON AND LEE ANN WOMACK REMAIN FAITHFUL TO THAT OLD COUNTRY SOUND

He's a neotraditionalist with a rebellious zeal for the roots music of country's pioneers. She is also true to her musical heritage, a Texas-tough survivor riding high with an inspirational crossover hit, "I Hope You Dance."

Their images aren't reflected in the slick, packaged, country music of today's Nashville.

Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack are currently touring, and will be in HSBC Arena at 7:30 tonight. The two are not only bucking Nashville trends but leaving their own imprint on the ever-changing dynamics of country music.

Womack has a touch of Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline in her voice. In an era of flashy and sexy country pop divas such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill, Womack rose to the top of the charts with a heartfelt rendition of a song about hopes and dreams for young people.

That's why she has performed "I Hope You Dance" at such disparate functions as the Orange Bowl football game, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies and President Bush's inauguration.

"This song has taken me to a lot of places I've never been before, and I think it has taken country music, Nashville and our community to new places," Womack said in a recent phone interview. "I'm proud of that."

The track, which earned a Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year, showed that a country singer doesn't have to wear a pop star disguise to make it with a mainstream audience.

"I had a strong career in country music before this record, and country is where my heart is and will always be," Womack said. "I didn't sing this song to make it in the pop world; it's not a watered-down pop song. This song just happened to work for pop. I wasn't copying any style for them, they just accepted it."

Acceptance without compromise is also important to Jackson.

His music hearkens back to the roots sound of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash. Most of those greats are ignored by today's Nashville power structure and country radio.

Jackson, though, can't forget them.

"When I came to Nashville back in 1985, I just felt like somebody had to keep that kind of music going," Jackson, 42, said in a recent phone interview. "I know there will always be different sounds in country music: pop, rock, southern rock, whatever.

"There's nothing wrong with that, but I just hate to see the real, rootsy country stuff disappear. This is real American music, and I hate to see it be dissolved into all this other stuff."

In the past decade, the Georgia native has sold nearly 30 million records and won over 60 music awards. His hit singles include "Chattahoochee," "Livin' on Love" and a country cover of Eddie Cochran's rock classic, "Summertime Blues."

Tall, lanky and ruggedly handsome with blond hair and blue eyes, Jackson fits the mold of a modern cowboy and epitomizes the commercial appeal Nashville covets.

But he can't help but bite the hand of the industry that feeds him. He believes Nashville has lost its bond to its founders because of the way the music business works.

"It's driven by money; selling whatever's hot," Jackson said. "That's the way trends go. It's not so much loyalty, credibility or paying tribute to the artists and music that built Nashville and country music."

That's why Jackson, over the course of his career, has tweaked the Nashville establishment and country radio.

A track on his current album is called, "Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song." It's a shot at record producers and radio programmers who, as the lyrics state, don't want to hear about: No drinkin', no cheatin', no lyin, no leavin'/That stuff it just don't belong/in a three minute positive/not too country up-tempo love song.

Rusty Carr, program director for country station WYRK- FM, is not amused by the song.

"I thought it was a little too inside for the average listener to understand," Carr said. "People in the business got the message, but I don't think the listeners cared that much. To me, it was the waste of a track on the album."

Despite the musical pot-shot, Carr admires Jackson's independent stance. "One thing about Alan Jackson is that he has stayed true to his music, he always keeps it country," Carr said. Jackson's most memorable defiant moment came in 1999 at the Country Music Association Awards. George Jones, who had nearly died earlier that year in an auto accident, skipped the awards after the producers offered him only 30 seconds to sing his song, "Choices."

Jackson showed up and in the middle of singing one of his songs, sang a verse from "Choices."

"I felt strong about it, and I wanted to do it for George," the normally soft-spoken Jackson said in an emotional voice. "I went to the hospital right after the car wreck, and people didn't know if George was going to make it or not. I just felt he deserved a little more respect."

Now Jackson faces his own test of time.

His past few albums, although high on the country charts, have not had the crossover appeal of his earlier work. He has failed to come anywhere near the figures of his 1992 album, "A Lot About Livin' (and a Little 'Bout Love)," that sold six million copies.

Some critics have charged him with making his sound and production too polished while others have claimed his music is too red-neck, filled with references about drinking, hunting and truck driving (Jackson may be best known for his Ford "country" commercials).

The singer shrugs off the critical barbs.

"I got a lot of fans who would argue about it, too," Jackson said. "I really don't watch all the charts and pay attention to the numbers.

"All I know is that country music has always been the real music for the working people. That's who I am, and that's where I come from."

Womack shares that musical heritage.

She grew up in Jacksonville, Texas. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father a principal who moonlighted as a radio DJ. Womack, 33, left college in 1990 the same year she married an aspiring country singer named Jason Sellers. They divorced in 1996, and she was a single mother.

She signed a deal with Decca Records in 1997. That year she released a self-titled album of traditional country songs. It was a minor hit, but her second album made little impact and to make matters worse, Decca folded.

Womack had just given birth to her second daughter, by her then boyfriend and now husband, Frank Liddell, a record executive in Nashville. She took time off and signed a deal with MCA Records.

The album, "I Hope You Dance," came out last spring and the song became an instant classic. Womack isn't having much trouble keeping things in perspective.

"Nothing has ever come easy for me all my life, from trying out for cheerleader to making the tennis team to getting good grades to what I'm doing today," she said. "That's not a bad thing, actually it's a good thing. It's taught me to work really hard."

She's proud that "Dance" bears an important message, especially for young women, about reaching goals.

"I love little girls, I have a couple of them and I used to be one," Womack said. "To think this song can mean something to them and I can be a role model makes me feel good. Every time I sing it, I think of my daughters and all I want for them."

The song has become sort of an anthem for weddings and graduations in the past year.

"That's just one of those songs, the minute you hear it, you love it," said local country singer and WXRL-AM radio personality Linda Lou Schriver. "Her voice is so sweet and original, and you know it comes from the heart.

"The thing I admire about Lee Ann is that even though that's a crossover hit, she's kept her basic country roots."

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