Jillia Jackson wouldn’t have ever secured a recording deal in Nashville had it not been for her education at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.
It’s fitting, then, that Jackson was chosen as the opening act for Country Music Television’s Empowering Education concert held on the UAFS campus in partnership with the university and Rich Mountain Community College. The concert, which will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 8 in the Stubblefield Center at UAFS, aims to inspire local residents to further their education.
Jackson had always harbored a passion for music, recalling days spent in her grandmother’s backyard singing songs she made up in her head while holding a dog chain as a microphone. But it wasn’t until she attended UAFS that she was able to hone her talents.
Jackson attended UAFS in 2003 and took a class with Don Bailey, director of jazz studies and associate professor of music at UAFS. In the class, she learned to write songs, sight sing and train her ear to be in tune.
“I learned so much from him,” she said of Bailey. “His influence and his teaching skills were priceless to me.”
After a year at UAFS, Jackson moved to Nashville to pursue her dream of being a country music artist. For several years, she traveled back and forth from Nashville to Fort Smith, writing songs and performing demos.
Then, Jackson got her lucky break thanks to a familiar face. Stacey Jones, associate vice chancellor for campus and community events at UAFS, asked her to open for Randy Travis as part of the university’s Season of Entertainment, a concert in which Bailey was also an opening act. After hearing her perform, Bailey approached her after the concert.
“He came to me and said he wanted to produce a demo for her and send it to a friend in Nashville and see if anything happens,” she said.
Jackson agreed, and Bailey’s connection in Nashville is what ultimately led to her securing her first record deal with a Grammy Award-winning producer.
“The recordings I did with Don helped me make connections with songwriters and producers that led to the record deal,” she said. “It was like winning the lottery. I just fell on my knees and cried,” she said. “And had I not gone to UAFS and met Don Bailey, I never would’ve gotten that publishing deal.”
Following the deal, Jackson’s music was featured on records of national touring acts such as Anderson East’s record “Delilah.” While in Nashville, Jackson’s music was also featured on television shows such as “The Good Guys” and “Parenthood.”
But after nine years in Nashville, Jackson decided to move back to Fort Smith in 2015 to “get back to her roots” and be closer to family and friends.
Since then, she has formed a new musical group, the Jillia Jackson Band, which performed at the Peacemaker Music and Arts Festival in Fort Smith in July.
While she doesn’t know what the future holds for her – “there’s no roadmap for this industry,” she said – she always remembers the value of the education that jumpstarted her career.
“A lot of people debate whether experience or education is more important, but I think going to a university also gave me experience, not just education,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t have met the people that I met and had the opportunities I had if it hadn’t been for UAFS.”
Those interested in attending the Sept. 8 concert can pick up tickets in-person or online. To print tickets online, visit http://uafs.universitytickets.com and click “Community Events.” To pick up tickets in person, visit the UAFS Box Office in the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center.
For more information about the concert, contact the Box Office at 479-788-7300. For more information on the Empowering Education initiative, visit www.cmtempoweringeducation.com or follow along on social media using #CMTEmpoweringEducation.