On January 15, 1990, there weren’t too many people in the world who knew the name Alan Jackson.
Fast-forward 31 years to January 15, 2021 and Jackson is now a staple of country music and one of the pioneers of the neotraditional country movement of the 1990s.
After the release of his debut single, “Blue Blooded Woman” in September of 1989, it was the title track of Jackson’s debut album, Here in the Real World, released as a single on January 15, 1990, that put Jackson on the map and started him down the road to country music superstardom.
Jackson served as a co-writer on nine of the ten songs on his the album, including “Here in the Real World,” which was co-penned by Mark Irwin, a Bronx, New York native who was working as a bartender at The Bluebird Café when his song with Jackson hit the airwaves.
Along with Jackson, Irwin, who realized he wanted to pursue songwriting around age 15 and had been seriously honing his craft and writing for about six years prior, watched the song they had created become a number one single, a distinction every songwriter and artist dreams of.
Prior to their writing session, Irwin admits that he wasn’t previously aware of Jackson.
“I was not really aware of him. He didn’t have a record deal yet. I was working with a new, small publishing company called 1010 Music,” says Irwin. “The owner, Barry Coburn, was also an artist manager and was working with Alan. His then wife, Jewel, was running the publishing company and they hooked Alan and me up.”
As he entered the room, Irwin says he was struck by Jackson’s six foot, four inch frame.
“I noticed he was tall, that’s for sure,” says Irwin. “He was quiet and reserved; almost shy. We got along great.”
Jackson brought the first two lines of what would eventually become his first number one to the writing room, and after hearing them, Irwin remembers the song coming together rather quickly.
“He had the first two lines, ‘Cowboys don’t cry, and heroes don’t’ die,’” says Irwin. “When he ran those by me, we talked and it sounded like it could be about ‘the movies,’ and the song really fell out after that.”
After the song was finished, a flurry of surreal experiences fell upon Irwin. When he heard the song in a dance hall and saw the floor was full, he remembers getting an inkling that the song could be special.
“I remember one time around then, I was meeting a musician friend of mine who was gonna help me with a demo session. I had to give him a cassette of the songs we were gonna record. He was playing with a band at a VFW hall or some kind of a ‘Lodge’ dance on a Saturday night, and when I walked in, they were playing ‘Here in the Real World,’” says Irwin. “Seeing a dance floor full of folks dancing to my song was a tremendous moment for me.”
When he heard the song on the radio for the first time, Irwin recalls being nearly overcome with emotion.
“I almost crashed my car,” says Irwin. “Surreal is the word I would use to describe it.”
As his song was climbing the charts, Irwin maintained a job bartending at The Bluebird, and night after night, the songwriters who took the stage would make the announcement that the bartender at the venue has a song climbing the charts.
“I won’t lie, that felt great! I was proud of it,” says Irwin. “I was also ready to get out of the bartending business, and it seemed like that was finally gonna be a reality.”
When the song reached number one, Jackson went out of his way to track Irwin down to tell him the big news, something he remains grateful for.
“I was a friend’s house, and somehow Alan was able to track me down. We didn’t have cell phones yet, and he told me the night before the charts were to come out,” says Irwin. “He was so gracious, and it meant a lot to me that he went to the trouble of finding me that evening instead of waiting until the next day.”
Now, 31 years since it was sent to radio, “Here in the Real World” continues to make its rounds in honky tonks, on the radio and every night Jackson has taken the stage over that span. Irwin believes the song’s staying power comes from its timeliness.
“That was such a great time for country music,” says Irwin. “I think all these years later, that song and a slew of others from then represent the beginning of what was called ‘New Country.”
All these years later, Irwin has had the thrill of receiving continuous messages about the song and hearing legends, as well as legends in the making, put their voice to it.
“It’s still a thrill any time someone might mention that song to me. It truly is,” says Irwin. “I’ve heard some of my heroes, from George Jones to Steve Earle to Chris Stapleton, sing it. I never take the journey that song has given me for granted.”
Irwin, who continues to write songs and had one of his co-writes released on the 31 year anniversary of “Here in the Real World,” credits the song as a turning point for himself in his songwriting career.
“’Here in the Real World’ opened so many doors for me, and was the song that made it possible for me to live the life I’ve gotten to live,” says Irwin. “I get to write songs every day, and through that, I’ve developed amazing, wonderful relationships with co-writers, artists and publishers; some who have become dear friends and family. To work and share successes with people you love is truly a blessing.”