The Standard Journal
ALABAMA: 50 years
“They were our Beatles.” That’s how Kenny Chesney described Alabama in a Pollstar piece two years ago, celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary tour.
“No one talks about how they moved it forward onstage, but my life and my live show wouldn’t be what it is without them,” he added. “I can’t speak for Garth (Brooks), but you can see it in his intensity and his hunger when he hits that stage. All that rock influence with country lyrics, that’s Alabama.”
Through the ’60s and ’70s, the most popular country stars were solo artists, traditionalists along the line of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, John Denver and Dolly Parton.
Alabama changed the game, hitting the mainstream as a full band with a sound and stage show that crossed over with rock and pop.
“Back in the day when we did cross over into other genres, we got criticized in both pop and rock worlds, along with country,” Alabama frontman Randy Owen said in an email interview. “They had never had a country rock band with long hair, jeans, tennis shoes and T-shirts singing songs with ‘N Sync, Lionel Richie and our own originals before, much less in the country world. Fans accepted us with open arms. The industry took a lot longer.”
Alabama formed in 1969 in Fort Payne, Alabama, as Young Country, fronted by singer-guitarist Owen and his cousins Jeff Cook (guitar and fiddle) and Teddy Gentry (bass). In 1973, with a name change to Wildcountry, they relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where, for the next several years, they worked clubs for tips playing covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Merle Haggard and The Outlaws.
They got their first record deal in 1977 as Alabama but the album and the label (GRT) were both a bust and the band was prohibited from signing with anyone else for two years. With rock drummer Mark Herndon on board, they cut a deal with RCA in 1980 and released “Tennessee River,” a single that opens like a Philly soul ballad before shifting into Skynyrd-style rock and morphing again into a rollicking mountain bluegrass jam.
With that, Alabama proved it can do it all. “Tennessee River” went to No. 1 on the country charts, beginning a streak of 21 straight charttopping singles, on the way to 41 in all. Some of those early hits — “Feels So Right,” “Take Me Down,” “Love in the First Degree” — were also hitting the Top 20 of the pop charts.
Joining Willie and Kenny Rogers as the rare country acts to headline arenas, the group made its Pittsburgh debut in May 1982 at the Civic Arena. In its preview, The Pittsburgh Press noted that it took Alabama 13 years to become an “overnight success.”
That amazing chart run lasted well into the late ’90s, by which time Garth Brooks, George Strait, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks were dominating country radio.
“We always felt it was a compliment to see other bands like us come along with similar music, like what we were doing,” Gentry says. “Bands like Restless Heart, Diamond Rio, Little Texas, Rascal Flatts and Zac Brown Band, they have all done extremely well and you can seem to always find something in their music they picked up from Alabama.”
Now, the country scene runs the gamut from rocker Chris Stapleton to the Thomas Rhetts and Kane Browns, who incorporate R&B.
“There will always be changes,” Owen says. “What we call country rock music now was not what it was in the ’20s or the ’50s or the ’70s. The new generation of artists are exciting and talented. We all need to embrace and accept change.”
Alabama launched a farewell tour in 2002 that stretched into 2004 and then resumed touring in 2013. Two years later, the group released “Southern Drawl,” its first album of new material in 14 years.
“We are always writing new songs and that never stops,” Gentry says. “We have talked about doing a release of a live concert album and also a new album of new music. However, we have no timeline on either of those at this point.”
The focus is on the group’s 50th anniversary tour, though sadly the original group is down to two principals, as Cook is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
“We miss Jeff at every show,” Owen says. “He was such a force in our band with lead guitar, fiddle, keyboards and high harmony. We got three musicians to replace him with his approval and blessing. His Parkinson’s has made it extremely difficult for him to play guitar and fiddle anymore. We ask every night for the fans to keep Jeff in their prayers.”