“Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?”
Alan Jackson posed that musical question in the days after the terrorist attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, while another plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
It’s one of the defining events of modern history, and one that no American who was alive that day will ever forget. We all watched our televisions in stunned, horrified sorrow as the towers came down, as our fellow Americans died by the thousands, as people leaped to their own certain deaths to avoid being burned alive. For that terrible day, and many after, there was a palpable fear and uncertainty about the future that Americans had almost never felt before — not since Pearl Harbor.
9/11 changed America in ways both great and small. It brought us together as a people in its aftermath, and then the hard decisions that came afterward divided us again, perhaps more bitterly than before. We fought wars against our enemies overseas, and we fought political and cultural wars amongst ourselves at home, the ramifications of which are still being played out today, a decade and a half later. But that’s not what this story is about.
Taste of Country reached out to some of country’s most patriotic stars to share with us their personal stories of 9/11 in their own words — where they were, what they were doing and how they felt on that terrible day, and how they think it has changed the world and their place in it. From those who wrote songs about the attacks to one who could have very well found himself in the thick of the fighting overseas, we thank the stars who took time out of their busy schedules to speak to us from the heart — not because they had a record or tour to promote, but because they believe that there’s one thing we can all do to make sure we always honor those who sacrificed their lives on that day, and on the many dark days that followed:
I was out in the midwest. Believe it or not, I was sleeping in a teepee, hunting free-range bison. So the day of the attacks, we were actually out in the prairie hunting, and it took us all day to get loaded up on horses and to get back to where we were camping. It was late at night, and there was a note from the ranch owner where we were staying to come down to the ranch as soon as we got back, that it was very important. Of course they were still up, and the media was still all over it.
We were just overwhelmed. We had no idea. It was actually into the next morning when we found out what was going on. As soon as we realized what had happened, we went back to camp, we packed everything up and we got in our rental car and drove all the way back to Nashville without notifying the rental car company, because I was still in the active Reserves.
I was confident I’d be leaving; I just knew I would. I was well-prepared for it. The unit that I was in, I received a phone call from the Army and we were activated, so I had to go in. But the unit I was in was not deployed.
I felt like it might continue throughout the nation, so obviously I was concerned for my family.
I felt like it was not an isolated incident, especially once the Pentagon was hit. I felt like it might continue throughout the nation, so obviously I was concerned for my family. I’m very fortunate in where we live, because I didn’t have the immediate threat that some people in the cities might have. But I was concerned that this might turn into a global event. And I’m not so sure it won’t happen again.
We didn’t think about terrorism then, prior to 9/11, the way we think about it now. Even young children understand the term. So it’s a different mindset. What happened on Sept. 11 for me was just the beginning. I’ve since lost a lot of friends because of the acts that took place on Sept. 11 and our reactions to those acts. But I do know, in my heart, that those who are gone and those who have been injured, they did it with pride, and they know and believe with every fiber that’s in their bodies, and their families believe and I believe that were it not for those sacrifices, we would be facing what happened on Sept. 11 on a much bigger front. I’m very humbled to think about the people that we have in our nation that are willing to make those sacrifices.
I was asleep when it happened. I came downstairs, and Lisa just walked over to me and took my hand and led me over to the television, and she didn’t say anything. She took me over to the TV, and it was clear at that point what had happened. My heart sank.
I don’t think I was feeling any fear at that moment. I think I was dealing with heartache. Depression. It was only in the time that followed that all of the possibilities creep into your mind. I remember going for a hike, and you know where the planes normally go, the flight patterns, and knowing that there are no flights, commercial or otherwise, and seeing the empty skies. If you know they’re not allowed up there, you get it. No planes up there.
I read these accounts, these Green Berets who were retired or in the Reserves, somewhere out in the middle of the country, but saw that and went straight to their phones and called their former commander and said, “Let me back in.” It makes me emotional, just so proud that they had that reaction.
Hayden [Nicholas] and I wrote a song just after that called “Code of the West” that was inspired by not only those soldiers, but the firefighters, the cops — all those who ran toward the buildings, all those who stood on bridges and so forth since then, who really are modern day heroes. There’s something really, really special about that, and it makes you — I don’t want to say “proud,” because I’m not responsible for those acts of courage — but I’m so heartened by it, and moved. I want the very best for those people. Look at what’s happening with the cops. I want people to look at those people and give them the benefit of any doubts, and know that you may be safe and sound right now, and you may not have to think about those people, but if a plane ever flies into another building again, those are gonna be the first people you think about.
It’s something we should all go back and think about. Never forget.
I was at my outdoor store in Smithville, Tenn., standing there with two state troopers drinking a cup of coffee. I saw the second [plane] live, but I didn’t see the first one. It was pretty strange to me, because I’m an airplane pilot, and for an airliner to hit a skyscraper in broad daylight in perfect weather sure didn’t seem right. [Then when the second one hit], those two guys standing there, they hit the road, because they knew it was gonna be a busy day with a lot of stuff going on.
We were wrapping everything up trying to shut down when all of a sudden, all the neighbors started coming in, and they were talking about what was going on, and they moseyed on to the back to the gun shop and commenced to buying ammunition. They didn’t know what was gonna happen. They knew the country was under attack, but I don’t think hillbillies are used to taking things laying down. They bought almost every bit of ammunition I had on the shelves before we could close the store. I’m proud of my neighbors, because when it hits the fan, they ain’t scared to stand up. I was real proud.
The fear was that this was gonna escalate, that it was gonna be more catastrophic than it was. It was plenty bad, but I think it could have been a lot worse. The most haunting thing that I’ve ever seen was looking at the sky and not seeing one single contrail. Airplanes could not fly. If you’re a flier, that sticks in your head.
I didn’t really wanna dwell on the fact that my country had just been sucker-punched by the enemy. I wanted to put a song out that said who we are as a people. That’s what [“Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly”] is about. It’s about recovery. We immediately began to bounce back, and we saw the pictures of all those flags up and down those streets, and you realized they hadn’t by any means separated us. They just drew us closer together, which is a very, very proud moment.
The song was two years old when the enemy attacked us. I didn’t write that about 9/11. After the attack, Lyric Street called me up and said, “Aaron, after this attack we want to produce something for the families of the victims of the attack. We’d like to re-record ‘You’ve Got to Stand for Something,’ and put it out as a single, and let all of the proceeds go to the American Red Cross. Would you like to be a part of that?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
Just after I got off the telephone, we were standing there watching the television, and there’s a smoking hole in Manhattan, and the cameraman in the helicopter — I don’t know what made him do it, but he’ll never know how he sparked something. He turned that camera on the Statue of Liberty, and when I saw that, I said, “Thank God they didn’t get her.” And all of a sudden it hit me that this song was laying in catalog.
I said, “This is really the song I want to deliver to America,” and we went out and got the players together, and after we did this work, not one single player would take pay. Not one. This is my Nashville guys standing up and doing what’s right, and responding at the moment.
I walked into Lyric Street, and we commenced to listening to “Stars and Stripes,” and we didn’t even get past the first verse and first chorus, he had everybody in that office, barking out orders: “How do we get this song out to country radio? What’s the fastest way?” It was a proud moment for me, because the music folks that I’ve dealt with, they’re artsy and touchy-feely and stuff like that, but man, on this day I watched them be great patriots and stand up for what they thought was the right thing to do. I got to be a part of it and I got to watch it, and I was so proud. Everybody at Lyric Street Records put their best foot forward, and it was all about this country, all about our brothers and sisters in America.
I was at the Tennessee Driver’s License Bureau, and my son called me and said the plane had run into the Trade Towers. Like I’m sure 99 percent of the country, I thought it was a horrible mistake by an air traffic controller or something. I had no inkling that it was anything else. And when the second one happened, it cemented it in your mind what it was, and then the other things started happening.
It was one of the most confusing days of my life, and in the lives of all Americans. It was a day the world changed, and we started to realize how very vulnerable we had allowed ourselves to become over the years, and how very foolish we had been by doing that. There are people in this world that you cannot trust, and we had trusted people that we should never have trusted, and it had cost us dearly, and it was time for us to clean our act up and get back in the game and protect this nation, which we did a very good job of there for a long time, and I don’t know — I’m afraid we’re rolling back into complacency right now. I certainly hope not, but that seems to be the case.
You didn’t know where it was gonna stop. There’s the Trade Towers, and then there’s the Pentagon, and then the plane crashed in the field in Pennsylvania, and it was like, “Where does this end? What’s this about? What’s gonna happen next? Is it gonna break out in California, is there gonna be something in Omaha? Are things gonna start blowing up around the country, are there cells here?”
It was one of the most confusing days of my life, and in the lives of all Americans.
I found a cold anger that came over me when I finally realized what was going on, when the second plane hit and there was no denying what was happening. I got very, very angry, a dangerous kind of angry. Not where you get angry at somebody and want to slap them upside the head, but, “Okay, now it’s our turn. There’s no place you can run, there’s no place you can hide — we’re gonna hunt you down, we’re gonna kill every damn one of you.” That type of angry.
That is still the only solution to this thing. These people are either gonna die, or they’re gonna kill us. It’s our decision to make which one we want to happen. It was that way on 9/11/2001, and it’s that way [today]. We had better dadblame well watch ourselves. We had better build our military back up, we had better build our intelligence facilities back up and start having some respect for them, and put some people in to run our intelligence that are not political hacks, because it’s a very dangerous world that we live in.
I was in Los Angeles. I went there for an agency meeting, a record company meeting, and my wife and kids were in Nashville. The boys were 3 and 6. My wife woke me up just in time to turn on the TV and see the second plane hit the second tower.
There’s that moment when you know an attack is imminent; you get that second of adrenaline that rushes through you, and there’s something about the fear of what’s coming next. I’m thankful that the government shut down the airlines and shut down the airports. It probably would have been worse, although it’s hard to believe it could get worse than that.
Our book that we released about a year ago, called Does God Still Bless the USA?, was sort of in response to that, and the first chapter was, “I’m Not Over 9/11.” As we look back at it as history, I’m sure as we read about Pearl Harbor, and our kids read about 9/11, it’s just a historic event. They recognize the magnitude of it, but they don’t recognize the emotional impact of it. We were threatened for the first time in a long time, and I know that was their intention, to bring it to us and cause fear.
My first thought was to protect my family in any way that I could. Sequestered in Los Angeles, I could not get out of town unless I bought a car and drove, and the remainder of that afternoon was making that decision: how far do I have to go, what should I do? From a business standpoint we made sure that we canceled all the entertainment contracts that were impending, as would be expected, and then responded immediately to New York to Mayor Giuliani, through my management and offered our assistance in any way we could, and they responded within a few days about the fireman’s memorial, and then eventually the policeman’s memorial. We also sang the first game of the World Series, to kind of raise the spirit of New York.
It just gave you that same feeling I guess that my father had when he joined the Navy right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor: “I want to do something, and I’m gonna get involved.” We were engaged for the next two years in many ways, singing wherever we could, talking to people, raising the spirit of America: “Don’t give up, get off your knees and let’s punch back.”
It was a stark reality of vulnerability, and not really knowing which way to turn … It’s something America hadn’t done in an awful long time, was having to raise its shield.
The only surprise was that it came to our shores. America’s response to it was no surprise to me. I was right in the middle of it. The first entertainment event on television [afterward] was the Dover NASCAR race, so they had me fly in to do the national anthem. I’m standing on the track as they dismiss the drivers, and there’s nothing left but the cameraman, who’s kneeling on the track in front of me, and the director. I’m ready to sing, and he directs me to wait, and the jumbotron in the center of the field goes to NBC, and Tom Brokaw shows a picture of the bombs dropping in Baghdad, and he says, “America strikes back.” And then the director said, “Now sing the national anthem.”
Being right in the middle of it, wanting to respond as best as I could with the very little talent that I have, and just trying to inspire America, and then pick up the pieces. There’s gonna be a lot of scattered pieces, and you just have to go along and pick up as many as you can.
I’m really inspired about Americans nationwide … no matter what side of the coin you’re on, people are really trying. They’re trying to take care of wounded warriors, they’re trying to support the military. They’re moving forward with their lives, because they know this next generation deserves their chance and deserves our attention.
America will come to a place of somewhat normality. We are not isolated like Israel and constantly under attack. With America’s shores protecting us, internally is what we have to worry about, and I believe our government will and has responded to those internal threats. As you see, 9/11’s a ways away, and those threats seem to be random, inspired by the new threat of ISIS, if not Al Qaeda. We will reach another place of normalcy.
More Country Stars Remember 9/11