Classic CMA Awards Moments, #1: Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) (2001)

#1: Alan Jackson
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”

Alan Jackson’s brilliant tribute to the tragedy of September 11 met a subdued audience when the CMA show was held just two months after the attack. That night, Jackson was nominated for three awards, but this performance superseded that achievement. It was a moment in which Americans, still in mourning following the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, were united by Jackson’s anthem of grief and loss.

The song described a humble man who subscribed to the basic values of faith, hope and love and put a proper perspective on the tragedy by examining what really matters in his life. He proposes watching I Love Lucy reruns, reaching for the Bible and holding tight to loved ones in the time of uncertainty. The writing and performing of “Where Were You” made Jackson an unexpected, but worthy ambassador for those who could not quite capture their own feelings about the subject. It also sparked a resurgence in Jackson’s career, one marked by the honest, humble words of a hillbilly poet with a pure, country voice. He’s third on the list of most honored CMA artists, owning 16 awards, including two awards for Male Vocalist of the Year and three wins as Entertainer of the Year.

What makes Jackson’s performance the most notable in the history of the CMA Awards is the song’s close connection with the themes have driven the format since its humble beginnings. The cliche’ often invoked about country music is that it portrays real life in just a matter of minutes. With the music business now built on increasing calculation, rather than inspiration, fewer moments of true spontaneity are captured and even fewer are presented to the public. On this night, the self-prescribed “singer of simple songs” proved that the legendary leaders of the genre, with their timeless melodies and rhymes, are still capable of transcendant art.

Alan Jackson, “Where Were You” (2001)


  1. A fine list. I remember most of these events like yesterday. Alan’s moment is not only my favorite CMA moment of all time, but is a true mark of just how music can reach us at a leverl much deeper than just our ears.

  2. Great work on the list! I find it amazing that our most soft-spoken star is responsible for the two biggest moments in CMA history. But I think it’s his soft-spoken nature that made both moments so powerful. If one of our louder artists, like a Toby Keith or Travis Tritt, had done the “Choices” switch, it wouldn’t have been as effective. And as we learned soon after, writing a 9/11 song with dignity and good taste isn’t nearly as easy as Jackson made it seem.

  3. I remember listening to the radio the next day, and the radio people had taken the audio from the show and played this song every couple of hours…the DJ said folks were burning the request line up wanting to hear this great song – it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – it was THAT good.
    I was hoping Dolly’s dress splitting the night she won Entertainer would have made #1, but am just as happy Alan gets his just due! lol…

  4. I was working in the press room backstage at the CMAs that night. All the reporters were watching on monitors, and I remember halfway through the song noticing that a woman seated a few feet from me was absolutely bawling her eyes out.

  5. That’s an interesting insider’s perspective. The rest of the moments on the list are fine in their own right, but this one seemed like a clear choice. This performance reached a wider, mainstream audience while serving as a perfect example of what country music is at its core.

  6. I think Kevin said it all perfectly!

    Great list, Blake! I can’t argue with your top two choices. They’re my favorites too. Both events still elicit emotion from me to this day when I see them.

  7. I think what I love most about this song is that hes asking all of these things. Hes not saying “this is how you should have dealt with this.” Hes saying, we all have our own way of dealing with these tragedies, how did you?

  8. I think the key part of “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?” was this part of the lyrics, when Alan sings:

    Faith hope and love are some good things he gave us
    And the greatest is love.

    As idlewildsouth says, it doesn’t force us into a dogmatic, one-size-should-fit-all mentality, which is why I think it will last longer than the gung-ho bromides that have been thrown around on country radio since 9/11.

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