My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artist: Alabama

alabamaA long time ago, back in 1969, there were three cousins in Fort Payne, Alabama, who decided to form a band. The band kept practicing and perfecting their craft, eventually becoming a proficient bar band, traveling the southeastern US and landing an extended gig at the Bowery in Myrtle Beach, SC. For part of this period they used the name Wildcounty but eventually the band became known simply as ‘Alabama’. They not only wrote some of their own material, but came up with a unique sound that eventually attracted the interest of the Dallas-based MDJ label. The release in 1979 on MDJ of “My Home’s In Alabama” reached #17 and got the folks at RCA Records interested in them, so much so that they signed to RCA in March 1980, beginning an extended period of huge success.

At the time they arrived on the national scene in 1980, I was not a big fan of the band, but as time went by, I developed a strong respect for the band and a deeper appreciation of their music and their status as trailblazers in vocal group country music.

This is not to say that there had not been vocal groups in country music before. Far from it, as groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, The Willis Brothers, The Four Guys, The Oak Ridge Boys and, most notably, the Statler Brothers had been having considerable success for years before Alabama arrived.

The Willis Brothers and Sons of the Pioneers came out of the western (or western movies) tradition and really are separate and distinct from mainstream country music. The Four Guys, The Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers came out of the gospel music traditions, and even when performing mainstream country music they frequently still sounded like gospel groups. In the case of the Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers, when commercial country success abandoned them, they turned back to recording more gospel music.

Alabama was unique. They did not arise out of the western or gospel traditions but were a bar band that played in front of noisy barroom audiences, wrote their own material, covered the likes of Merle Haggard, and developed a synthesis of soft rock and country music that brought a new audience to country music. That new audience was a younger audience that had grown up on rock music but perhaps felt that rock had become too weird or perhaps simply had grown up with both rock music and country music and appreciated the synthesis that Alabama had developed.

Unlike most rock music of the time, Alabama’s music was both melodious and harmonious. Unlike most country music of the 1960s and 1970s, Alabama’s music was good dance music in a way that the music of Jimmy Dickens, Roy Drusky and Jim Reeves never could be. Plus Alabama had three really good vocalists, even if RCA insisted that Randy Owen be the lead vocalist on most tracks.

In addition to bringing a younger audience to country music, they were a huge influence on the genre as over the next decade, more and more vocal bands entered the scene, cautiously at first with Atlanta coming on the scene in early 1983, followed by more significant bands such as Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Diamond Rio, Sawyer Brown and many others.

Alabama would have an uninterrupted run of success from 1980 thru 1999, after which time the top ten hits ceased. Along the way they would enjoy thirty-three #1 singles with six other singles reaching #2, six more reaching #3 and two more getting stranded at #4. Many of their singles reached #1 in Canada including a few late 1990s singles that did not reach #1 in the US (eh?).

Alabama was lead singer Randy Owen (b. 1949) and his cousins, Teddy Gentry (b. 1952) and Jeff Cook (b. 1949). For many years it was thought by most fans that drummer Mark Herndon was a member of the group, but years after the group retired, it was revealed that he was but a paid employee of the group.

Some of my older comrades may disagree, but when I listened to Alabama’s music, I always felt that I was listening to country music, if a somewhat different form of the genre. There are many album tracks which have a far more traditional sound than some of the singles. There are fiddles and steel guitars on many tracks and while the three members of Alabama were good songwriters, they did not hesitate to record good outside material.

Join us as we look back at the career of Alabama.

2 responses to “Spotlight Artist: Alabama

  1. Ken September 1, 2015 at 11:54 am

    Very good overview of the band.

    I too was a bit skeptical when Alabama first arrived on the national scene in the late 1970’s. My radio station played their first national chart single “I Wanna Be With You Tonight” on GRT Records in 1977. Our Program Director was good friends with the Promotion Director at that label and wanted to give the new act a shot. It was not a bad song and had it been released a couple of years later it may have done better than it’s #78 chart position. Being a fan of the more traditional side of country music I was not enthused to see a new act that was a bit outside the lines of what constituted mainstream country music at that time. The past several years had already brought a proliferation of pop-influenced content to the country charts. Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbitt, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle & Anne Murray (to name a few) had all released highly-produced pop and/or R&B flavored songs that brought them success on top 40 radio as well as country stations. To me Alabama represented a further shift away from the center in another direction as their content, as well as their appearance, was definitely influenced by southern rock. Personally that musical style was not what I enjoyed hearing in the context of country music. But the times were a-changin’ and the younger end of the country audience that embraced Waylon & Willie’s outlaw music was also willing to accept Alabama. Their first RCA single “Tennessee River” included a fiddle breakdown perhaps in an effort to diminish resistance from programmers like myself that were not sure if the group would be accepted by mainstream country listeners. We all discovered that the 1980 country audience was definitely willing to widen the boundaries of country music and Alabama found a pathway to success by blending country/southern themes with an edgier, rock-influenced sound coupled with a high energy stage presentation. A combination of talent and timing transformed them into a legendary country act.

    After a 14 year absence from the studio they have reunited with a new album “Southern Drawl” set for a September 18th release. Jeff Cook’s comment about the new album was “Country music, when we took our ‘vacation,’ is not the same country it is today. For people who knew the original Alabama, [Southern Drawl] is going to be a little different to their ears.”
    My fear is that if they alter their sound and dumb down their songs in order to gain acceptance to the shallow cesspool that is labeled as country music today it will be a very sad postscript to their otherwise stellar legacy. Let’s hope that does not happen.

    I look forward to revisiting Alabama’s vast catalog all this month.

  2. Michael A. September 1, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Nice selection. I’m surprised they haven’t been the spotlight artist of the month before this. While I was never a huge fan, I do enjoy a good number of their songs and I actually just recently completed my digital collection of their discography.

    It looks like they had 3 hits that peaked at #4, not two. The source is wikipedia which is not always an accurate source, however.

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