My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jeff Cook

Spotlight Artist: Lonestar

lonestarFor many years, the prototypical country group took the form of a gospel quartet or quintet, modeled after such gospel favorites as the Jordanaires, The Old Hickory Singers, The Oak Ridge Quartet or the Blackwood Brothers. These groups were strictly vocal groups, with some sort of instrumental accompaniment, often nothing more than someone playing the piano. It was rare that the group handled its own instrumentals, other than perhaps the original version of the Sons of The Pioneers; and aside from western groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, the repertoire was almost entirely gospel.

The first group to venture off into mostly secular music was the Statler Brothers in 1965, with the electrifying hit “Flowers On The Wall”. The Statler Brothers were strictly a vocal group, although the great Lew DeWitt played some acoustic guitar. In 1976, the Statlers were followed by the Oak Ridge Boys (formerly the Oak Ridge Quartet). Like the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys were a gospel quartet that went secular. Both groups tended to strongly resemble the gospel groups from which they had arisen, and both groups had all four members vocals featured prominently.

It was not until Alabama came to prominence in 1980 that the modern day concept of a country group entered the public conscience. Alabama was comprised of three cousins (Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook) plus a very talented outsider in drummer Mark Herndon. Unlike other country groups, Alabama had a designated lead vocalist in Randy Owen, with the other members providing instrumental support and taking an occasional lead vocal, mostly on album cuts.

Alabama proved to be hugely successful with dozens of #1 singles and millions of albums sold. Soon additional similarly structure groups would arise such as Atlanta (1983), Exile (1983), Restless Heart (1985), Shenandoah (1987), Diamond Rio (1991), and Little Texas (1991).

Of course, every trend and/or fad runs its course and Lonestar (1992) would prove to be the last really successful band of the wave that started with Alabama.

Lonestar was unusual in that as they originally were constructed, Lonestar had two singers who perceived of themselves as the lead vocalist of the group. Richie McDonald was the lead vocalist but bass player John Rich also sang some leads (mostly on album tracks) and would be booted out of the group after the second album.

Lonestar would prove to have staying power, releasing eleven studio albums (five reached gold or platinum status) and enjoying a large number of hit singles including nine that reached #1 and another nine that landed in the country top ten. One of their #1 singles, “Amazed” also reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for two weeks sandwiched between singles by Savage Garden and Destiny’s Child, and it charted in the United Kingdom.

Although the top ten singles ceased in 2006, Lonestar is still around having just issued a new album. Richie McDonald left the group for a while, but has since returned and the band once again consists of Richie McDonald on lead vocals and piano, Michael Britt on lead guitar, backing vocals, Keech Rainwater banging on the drums and Dean Sams on keyboards, acoustic guitar and backing vocal. This is essentially the original group minus John Rich.

Lonestar has a website and is playing a full schedule of road appearances. They still sound good, and if you liked them during their 1990s heydays, you’ll like them now.

So sit back as enjoy our Spotlight review of the one of the leading country groups of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

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Album Review: Alabama – ‘Southern Drawl’

southern drawlI was concerned that Alabama’s long-awaited comeback album would pander too much to the current state of country radio, and the first single did nothing to change that. Fortunately there are some bright spots and one outstanding song.

The title track and lead single sounds like a straight rock song. It’s actually not bad for what it is, apart from the woeful rap section and the very, very cliche’d picture of the South it paints. Somehow it took four writers to create it. The song at least has an insistent groove and the band sound as if they are enjoying themselves. It is not the worst track on the album; that dubious honor goes to the resolutely uncatchy ‘Foot Stompin’ Music’, whose title alone probably tells you all you need to know. The only good thing about it is the fiddle break at the end.

I was intrigued by the quirky title, ‘Hillbilly Wins The Lotto Money’, written by Randy Owen’s son Heath. It is an interesting story song with a bluesy arrangement which grew on me with repeated listens. The perky ‘Back To The Country’ features the obligatory token banjo to accompany a lyric about feeling out of place in the city and longing for a rural home. The clichés are saved by Randy Owen’s believable delivery. The mid-tempo country-rock ‘American Farmer’ pays tribute to its subjects’ hard work.

‘No Bad Days’ took six writers including James Otto, Jerry Jeff Walker’s son Django, and Jeff Cook, but is a pretty good song in folk-rock vein sung by Cook. Teddy Gentry leads on the more urgent ‘It’s About Time’ .

The ballads tend to lean AC rather than country. ‘Wasn’t Through Lovin’ You Yet’ just feels a little uninspired. ‘This Ain’t Just A Song’, written by Tim James, Rivers Rutherford and George Teren, is quite pleasant; and the Randy Owen-penned ‘As Long As There’s Love’ has a pretty melody and idealistic lyric.

‘One On One’ has Randy Owen doing his familiar laughably over-the top Conway Twitty impersonation, but the parts which are actually sung rather than spoken in an attempt to sound sexy, are pretty good.

The gentle ‘Come Find Me’ is very pretty indeed, and features Alison Krauss on fiddle and harmony vocals, although the latter are rather low in the mix. It was written by Tony Lane and David Lee. By far the best song here, though, is left to the end of the set. The beautiful ‘I Wanna Be There’ is addressed to a newborn baby girl, with the besotted new father expressing his hopes that he will experience all the joys of fatherhood in the years to come. It was written by Paul Overstreet and Harley Allen, and is genuinely moving. This alone makes a distinctly patchy album worthwhile, and I recommend both it and ‘Come Find Me’ to be downloaded even if you pass on the rest.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Cheap Seats’

cheap seatsI guess the end of the road comes for everybody and in this case the end of the road is actually the end of the #1 singles for Alabama, with “Reckless” being the band’s final Billboard #1 and “Cheap Seats” being the first single in fourteen years to miss the top ten.

Cheap Seats was produced by Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, and was released in October 1993, with three singles released from the album (“Reckless”, “T.L.C. A.S.A.P.” and “The Cheap Seats”). The album was the second consecutive album to miss the top ten on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, reaching only #16, their worst showing to-date on RCA. Although the next four albums would chart better, even reaching the top ten in two instances, it was becoming clear that Alabama was no longer a dominant force in country music.

Despite this, I really like this album, as some of the songs personally resonate with me.

The album opens with the Rick Bowles-Josh Leo composition “Still Goin’ Strong”, a moderate rocker, that features Jim Horn on tenor sax.

Next up is “T.L.C.A.S.A.P” a song penned by the Baker-Myers duo. This song only reached #7 but likely would have been a number one a few years earlier.

Well, we work real hard six days a week,
Honey, this is somethin’ we both need…

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
A little TLC ASAP.

A little TLC ASAP…
A little R & R for you and me…
A guaranteed rat race remedie,
I need TLC ASAP.

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

TLC ASAP…
R & R for you and me…

“Katy Brought My Guitar Back Today” is a tender slow ballad that had little potential for use as a single. Ditto for the Mark Alan Springer ballad “On This Side of The Moon”.

The title track “The Cheap Seats” is the outstanding track on the album, even though it only reached #13. The song, a perfectly crafted uptempo ‘slice of life’ by Randy Sharp and Marcus Hummon tells it like it is in many small towns. Believe me, I’ve lived this story many times growing up:

This town ain’t big, this town ain’t small
It’s a little of both they say
Our ball club may be minor league, but at least it’s triple A
We sit below the Marlboro man, above the right field wall
We do the wave all by ourself
Hey ump, a blind man could’ve made that call
We like beer flat as can be
We like our dogs with mustard and relish
We got a great pitcher what’s his name
Well we can’t even spell it
We don’t worry about the pennant much
We just like to see the boys hit it deep
There’s nothing like the view from the cheap seats

“Cheap Seats” was the only song from this album that was made into a video.

“Reckless”, written by Jeff Stevens and Michael Clark, was actually the first single released from this album and would prove to be Alabama’s last #1 single. The song, a mid-tempo rocker, is a typical ode to restless youth:

Let’s take my Thunderbird and leave tonight,
I’ll keep the pedal to the floor till we see the morning light.
They can’t live our lives for us,
If we let them we’ll lose our love.
And love dies hard in this Texas sun,
I’d rather be reckless and on the run

Let’s roll the windows down, turn the radio up
Let the wind blow through our hair
There’s a moon tonight and a road outside, baby
We’re gettin out of here.
I could care less where it leads us
Love is reckless, let’s get reckless tonight

Teddy Gentry, Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler collaborated on “That Feeling”, a lovely ballad that would have made a good single. I consider this song to be the unearthed gem of this album:

I’ve made some decisions
Never not the best
Against my better judgment
I must confess
I went astray so many ways
So my dreams fall apart
And came a day I’m glad to say
I followed my heart

That feeling the one I’m feeling now
Oh that feeling that turned me all around
That feeling oh what love can do
That feeling that never let’s me down
Oh that feeling that always come around
I never need another
It’s gonna last my whole life through
That feeling I’m feeling for you

Jeff Cook had a hand in writing “This Love’s On Me” a kind of generic up-tempo rocker that, this time featuring Jim Nelson on tenor sax. Jeff Cook handles the lead vocals on this track.

“Clear Water Blues” , another Gentry- Rogers-Fowler collaboration, was not on the cassette version of this album, but was on the CD version as a ‘bonus’ track. The song is a gentle jazzy ballad which features harmonica, banjo, organ and trumpet as integral parts of the arrangement. Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals on this song and does an excellent job of it.

“A Better Word For Love” is another track not found on the original cassette release, but available as a CD ‘bonus track’. The song was written by Andy Anderson (of NRBQ) and Gary Nicholson and is yet another gentle ballad. NRBQ would record the song on one of their albums.

The final song, Becky Hobbs’ excellent “Angels Among Us” has an interesting history. Unlike the rest of the album, this track was produced by Teddy Gentry. Not only did Becky Hobbs include the song on her excellent 1994 album The Boots I Came to Town In, but the Alabama album track received considerable attention at county radio and twice entered the country charts from unsolicited airplay: reaching # 54 in 1994, and later clocking in at # 28 in January 1995. The sonmg charted again for Alabama at #22 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart in January 1996. Maybe Alabama should have issued the song as an official single! The choir on this song was provided by the Sanctuary Choir & Young Musicians Choir of First Baptist Church, Fort Payne, Alabama.

I was walkin’home from school
On a cold winter day,
Took a short cut through the woods
And I lost my way.
It was gettin’ late, and I was scared and alone.
Then a kind old man took my hand, and led me home.
Mama couldn’t see him,
But he was standing there,
And I knew in my heart
He was the answer to my prayer.

[Chorus]
Oh, I believe there are Angels Among Us,
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live
To teach us how to give
To guide us with a light of love.

This wasn’t Alabama’s best album but a strong album worth a B+. I liked all three released singles, and while “Angels Among Us” wasn’t released as a single, I have several friends who consider the song to be their favorite Alabama song. Since the album tracks were all at least passable, and most very good, no one should be disappointed with this album.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘American Pride’

00024235Alabama’s fourteenth album for RCA, American Pride, was their third produced in conjunction with Larry Michael Lee and Josh Leo. The album, released in August 1992, spawned four singles.

Slick rocker “Take A Little Trip” previewed the record and hit #2. A tale about a couple with ambitious dreams planning a staycation, the song employed heavy drums and guitars and allowed for a gravely lead vocal from Randy Owen. Final single “Hometown Honeymoon,” which peaked at #3, continued in this theme. While the latter features a fiddle-laced production I love, neither song is lyrically memorable and all but forgotten today.

The hometown theme spreads to “Homesick Fever,” which is a love-where-you’re-from mid-tempo southern rocker that’s good but nowhere near great. A more generic focus on Americana is found on the title track, the album’s most personal song thanks to Owen’s sole writing credit. He keeps the details generic, but the ballad has heart.

While listening to American Pride for review I was surprised to learn “Richard Petty Fans” was a tender ballad and not the rocker the title suggests. It certainly works, but the results feel like a typical Alabama piano ballad but with a tight focus.

The dreadful “You Can’t Take The Country out of me” has the vibe of “Pass It On Down” mixed with a lyric that mirrors “Down Home.” From the token banjo that opens the track to the southern gothic rock atmosphere, I genuinely dislike everything about this song.

The second single, and the only chart topper from American Pride, is arguably their most iconic radio offering from the 1990s. “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is brilliant commercial contemporary country music – an engaging melody (featuring drums and guitars with ample breathing space) mixed with a memorable chorus and distinct harmonies. It’s also a great song, built from a premise seemingly without promise.

For the requisite ballad single, the band offered “Once Upon A Lifetime.” The #3 peaking song tries to update their watered down slow jams from the previous decade but fails to give the listener anything interesting or exciting. I give them points for attempting to give radio a sincere love song but they shouldn’t have so blatantly mailed in their efforts.

The ballads only get worse from there. Jeff Cook co-wrote and takes the lead on “Pictures and Memories,” a track that feels like a left over from the early 1980s. I would’ve enjoyed it more had the overall vibe leaned country in even a slightly noticeable way. “Sometimes out of Touch,” which features Teddy Gentry on lead vocal, also has a dated sound. But the piano flourishes and Gentry’s interesting vocal tone keep the track from joining the others at the bottom of the remainder bin.

“Between The Two of Them” appears on American Pride in its original form. A deep album cut for the band, it would be a single from Tanya Tucker in 1994. There’s no arguing that she has the better version. Alabama’s take on the ballad is far too slow and lacks any country signifiers to make it interesting.

I had been gunning to review American Pride since I love “I’m In A Hurry” and “Hometown Honeymoon” so much. It’s also one of the first Alabama albums I purchased when I began listening to country music about twenty years ago.

But neither of those things excuses the fact that American Pride is nothing more than a bizarre album. Listening thru, it’s obvious this is nothing more than a commercial album frontloaded with the four offerings suitable for radio while the remaining seven tracks have little to no value for the listener. In most respects, it’s hard to even categorize American Pride as a country album at all.

Grade: C+

 

 

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Southern Star’

41OBKFV1XkLAlabama arrived on the national stage in 1980 at a time when country music was dominated by crossover acts. By mid-decade, however, the pendulum had swung wildly in the opposite direction and by the end of the decade, many veteran acts had been swept off the charts altogether. Those that survived the tide change were forced to adopt a more traditional sound in order to remain relevant. 1989’s Southern Star was Alabama’s back-to-basics album — sort of. While it was less slickly-produced than most of their earlier albums, a traditional album it is not. The radio singles were carefully crafted to appeal to the change in commercial tastes, but on the album cuts the band continued to explore different styles, including Southern rock and pop.

Southern Star found the band working with a new production team. Gone was Harold Shedd, who had co-produced all of their albums for RCA, and in his place were Barry Beckett; Larry Michael Lee, and Josh Leo. The album continued Alabama’s winning streak on the singles charts, with all four of its singles reaching #1, starting with “Song of the South”, a catchy Bob McDill number that had been recorded several times previously — originally by Bobby Bare, and later by Johnny Russell and Tom T. Hall with Earl Scruggs. Ballads were always a strong point for the band and the excellent “If I Had You”, the album’s second chart-topper was no exception. The uptempo “High Cotton” takes a look back through rose-colored glasses at growing up during the Great Depression, and “Southern Star” gives Alabama an opportunity to showcase their tight harmonies.

The rest of the songs on Southern Star could have appeared on any of Alabama’s previous albums. Though the production is more organic, the songs occasionally stray into different musical territory. “Down On The River” is pleasant if not particularly memorable Southern rock song. “She Can” is pop-flavored number that is somewhat marred by a synthesizer, “Dixie Fire”, featuring Jeff Cook on lead vocals, is similarly dated sounding. “Barefootin'” (another Cook-led effort) is a throwaway number with annoying horns.

The Randy Owen-penned “Ole Baugh Road” is one of the better album cuts. The Spanish-tinged “The Borderline”, with Teddy Gentry singing lead with guest Charlie Daniels, is the album’s biggest creative stretch.

Though not without its missteps, Southern Star proved that Alabama was able to adapt to changing commercial tastes and remain relevant after nearly a decade on charts. It was a great way to close out the decade and the album is still worth listening to today.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alabama – ’40 Hour Week’

40 hour weekIf I’m not mistaken, 40 Hour Week was the first album to be released as a CD on initial release, rather than only on vinyl and/or cassette, a strong indicator of just how popular the band had become. In 1985 relatively few country acts were being released on CD.

40 Hour Week was the band’s sixth RCA album and also represents a creative turn for the band in that earlier albums had focused on love songs and songs of the idyllic rural South, whereas 40 Hour Week is somewhat grittier and opens with two anthems celebrating the working person, before reverting to the usual pattern.

The album opens with the title track, written by the redoubtable trio of Dave Loggins, Lisa Silver & Don Schlitz. An excellent song that soared to #1 on August 3, 1985, giving Alabama its 17th consecutive #1 single (breaking the previous Billboard record held by Sonny James. The song is definitely a salute to working people:

There are people in this country
Who work hard every day
Not for fame or fortune do they strive
But the fruits of their labor
Are worth more than their pay
And it’s time a few of them were recognized.

Hello Detroit auto workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line

Hello Pittsburgh steel mill workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line.

Track two is “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down”, written by Bob Corbin, whose Corbin-Hanner band had some marginal success during the early 1980s.The song was the third single released from the album and reached #1.

Track three, “There’s No Way”, written by Lisa Palas, Will Robinson and John Jarrard, was the first single released from the album and reached #1 , becoming Alabama’s 16th consecutive #1, tying Sonny James; record for consecutive #1s.

As I lay by your side and hold you tonight
I want you to understand,
This love that I feel is so right and so real,
I realize how lucky I am.
And should you ever wonder if my love is true,
There’s something that I want to make clear to you.

There’s no way I can make it without you,
There’s no way that I’d even try.
If I had to survive without you in my life,
I know I wouldn’t last a day.
Oh babe, there’s no way.

Next up is “Down On Longboat Key”, a pleasant piece of album filler written by Dennis Morgan and Steve Davis. The song is a jog-along ballad about where a guy promised to take his girl.

She sits and stares out the window at the water
Every night down at Longy’s Cafe
All alone she sips her Pina Colada
Talking to herself dreaming time away
The story is that a dark haired sailor
Stole her heart many years ago
He promised her he’d come back and take her
Around the world, bring her hills of gold

“Louisiana Moon”, a Larry Shell – Dan Mitchell composition is more album filler. It is pleasant enough, mildly reminiscent of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” in both subject matter and sound, but not nearly as funky.

The sixth track, “I Want To Know You Before We Make Love”, was written by Becky Hobbs and Candy Parton and would have made a good single for Alabama. The song is a romantic ballad that, for whatever reason, remained an album cut. Hearing its hit potential, the great Conway Twitty took it to #2 in 1987.

Sometimes all you need is someone to hold you
Sometimes that’s all you’re looking for
But I’d like to take the time to get to know you
‘Cause I don’t want this time to be like all the times before.

I want to know you before I make love to you
I want to show you all of my heart
And when I look into those eyes
I want to feel the love inside, you
I want to know you before we make love.

I’ve learned from all those lonely nights with strangers
It takes time for real love to be found
I feel the invitation of your body
But I’d like to look inside your soul before I lay you down.

I didn’t sense any fireworks in Alabama’s recording of “Fireworks” . I regard this as the weakest song on the album.

Jeff Cook delivers the lead vocals on “(She Won’t Have A Thing To Do With) Nobody But Me”, a good mid-tempo ballad written by Dean Dillon, Buzz Rabin & “Flash” Gordon. Jeff’s vocals seem a bit off from his usual standard on this particular performance. It is still worth hearing, as is the slow ballad “As Right Now” on which co-writer Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals.

The album closes out with the John Jarrard – Kent Robbins penned “If It Ain’t Dixie (It Won’t Do)” an ode the South that closes with an extended jam at the end. It’s a good song but the excessive length guaranteed that it would not be released as a single. I think shortening the song and increasing the tempo would have greatly improved the song. As a lifelong Southerner, I identify with the lyrics but the execution was off a bit as far as I’m concerned

O

h, I love those Colorado Rockies
And that big starry Montana sky
And the lights of San Francisco
On a California night
Enjoyed those ballgames in Chicago
On those windy afternoons
It’s a big beautiful country
But I’m never home too soon
If it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do

If it ain’t Dixie, it don’t feel quite like home
My southern blood runs deep and true
I’ve had good times
North of the line
I’ve got a lot of good friends, too
But if it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do
It won’t do

My memory may be failing me, but I seem to recall that all of the singles released had accompanying music videos. I don’t think that was true of any of their other albums

I would give this album an A-. While I regard the three singles released to all be A+ material, the rest of the album would rate a B+ in my estimation. My opinion notwithstanding, this was the top selling country album of 1985.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Mountain Music’

mountain musicThe band’s third album for RCA, 1982’s Mountain Music, was produced by the band with Nashville veteran Harold Shedd. It continued the recipe as before, with similarly successful results.

All three singles were chart toppers, starting with the title track. Opening with the strains of a solo harmonica (played by Michael Douchette), and then a short verbal imitation of an elderly countryman by the band’s roadie Bob Martin, Randy Owen’s song, inspired by his memories of growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Alabama, paints an idyllic picture of a rural Southern childhood. It is an unexpectedly charming mixture of country-rock and bluegrass influences, with bright effervescent fiddle alongside the electric guitar. There are great harmonies, with Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook getting a few solo lines to boot.

The second single was competently performed but not at all country sounding (and not to my taste). ‘Take Me Down’ was a cover of a failed pop single by the band Exile (who soon afterwards decamped to country music) also got some pop airplay for Alabama, reaching the top 20 on that chart.

Finally, ‘Close Enough To Perfect’ is a very nice romantic ballad, with a sweet string arrangement.

There are a couple of excellent songs among the remaining tracks. The dramatic ‘Words At Twenty Paces’, which applies Western movie metaphors to a troubled romance, was written by troubadour High Moffatt:

Just like a Western movie
A challenge has been made
A shot was fired in anger
And pride stepped off the train
Won’t we ever stop this
Killin’ me and you,
Till our hearts are up on Boot Hill
And there’s nothing we can do.

Words at twenty paces,
Anger at high noon
This house ain’t big enough for both of us
it’s comin’ soon
We’ll finish off our happiness
And run hope out of town
With words at twenty paces, Lord,
It’s love we’re gunnin’ down.

How did we ever lose
The dreams we used to share?
The gentle touch, the words of love,
The way we used to care
Sometimes your words
Cut like a bullet in my side
Oh, which is more important
Wounded hearts or wounded pride?

I got my ammunition
I know you got yours too
We know each other’s weakness
Lord, the damage we can do
Why can’t we just step aside
And put our guns away
Let love come like a cavalry
Ride in and save the day

Had it been recorded a few years later, it would have been prime fodder for a video treatment. The arrangement is contemporary country, and works well.

‘Changes Comin’ On’ was written by Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon and Jimmy Darrell, and chronicles the changes in music and American society since the 1960s. It is an excellent song, and Alabama’s version is great – for the first three and a half minutes. Unfortunately, the track then goes “on and on and on” (as they sing themselves) for the same length of time again, without actually going anywhere. Pointless and self indulgent.

Jeff Cook’s vocals are mediocre compared with those of his cousin Randy Owen, but he got his chance to sing lead on two songs here, both heavier of the rock than country. His own ‘Lovin’ You Is Killin’ Me’ is no better than average, while a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River’ is dull. Neither song is helped by the monotonous vocal.

Teddy Gentry takes the lead on his own ‘Never Be One’, a sentimental ode to a toddler daughter, which is sweet to the border of saccharine. The child makes a small cameo appearance. In a complete change of tone, the faux sexy ‘You Turn Me On’ (written by Gentry and Owen) features an overdone Conway Twitty impersonation (although Randy sings the verses pleasantly enough).

The record closes with the enjoyably rowdy ‘Gonna Have A Party, written by Kieran Kane (future member of The O’Kanes’), 60s rocker Bruce Channel, and Cliff Cochran.

Mountain Music was the group’s first album to hit the platinum mark, and has now sold five times that. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of material, but has some pretty good tracks.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Feels So Right’

61l1zC9YGNL1981’s Feels So Right was Alabama’s fifth album overall and their second for RCA. The band once again co-produced the album with Harold Shedd and Larry McBride, the team that had made their major label debut album a runaway success. It sold more than 4 million copies — twice as many as the highly successful My Home’s In Alabama, and spawned three #1 country hits. It also found the band making inroads on the pop charts for the first time, with both the title track and “Love In The First Degree” landing in the pop Top 20. The latter has always been one of my favorite Alabama songs; I was just getting interested in country at the time and it was one of the few songs played on Top 40 radio that I could enjoy. I like the first single “Old Flame” slightly better, though. The most country-sounding of the three singles, it was written by Donny Lowery and Mac McAnally and was always one of the most popular numbers in the band’s live shows.

I have to admit that prior to preparing for this review, I had never heard an Alabama album all the way through. Although I enjoyed most of the band’s radio hits, I was more of an Oak Ridge Boys fan in those days and had limited financial resources for buying albums. My prep work has underscored that it’s almost always a good idea to dig a little below the surface beyond an act’s hit singles. Listening to the full album exposes another side to Alabama that is much more diverse than what could be heard from them on the radio. Always considered to be on the more progressive end of the country music spectrum, the album cuts are often more traditional, although there are also some cuts that were a little too Southern rock for country radio.

“Ride The Train”, written by Teddy Gentry, is a great number with a lot of fiddle and harmonica and great harmonies and far too country for country radio in 1981. “Woman Back Home” was also too traditional for a radio single in 1981, though it would probably have done well about a decade later, if given a chance. “Burn Georgia Burn” gives Teddy Gentry a turn to sing lead, and the Southern rock laced “See The Embers, Feel The Flame” gives Jeff Cook a chance to do the same. Both are very good vocalists and it’s a shame that neither got a chance to sing lead more often; I’ve always thought that groups that let more than one member sing lead, like The Statler Brother and The Oak Ridge Boys, were more interesting than those that featured the same lead singer every time.

The album has mostly stood the test of time well, although its age is occasionally betrayed by some of the production choices. Many of the tracks feature a string section, although they are relatively restrained for the most part. The album is less slickly produced than many from this era, with the exceptions of the tracks “Hollywood” and my least favorite track “Fantasy”, a late 70s-sounding number that sounds like it would have been a big hit for The Bee Gees.

Feels So Right, is by and large a very enjoyable album and a pleasant surprise that has shown me that I have a lot of work to do to catch up on what I’ve been missing out on for the past 35 years.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alabama – ‘My Home’s In Alabama’

my home's in alabamaThe first major label album for Alabama was My Home’s In Alabama, although it was actually their fourth album. By the time RCA released this album in 1980, Alabama was a tight, cohesive band with a distinctive sound of their own and a decent track record of success with two of their MDJ singles having charted in 1979 (“I Wanna Come Over” at #33), and early 1980 (“My Home’s In Alabama” at #17).

With My Home’s In Alabama, Alabama was instantly transformed from a successful regional act into a national goliath Although the group was sometimes described as being country-rock or rock country, this album wasn’t close to fitting that category as the band didn’t begin to approximate the rockin’ sound of the Allman Brothers, Poco, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker or even Hank Jr. for that matter. Even the title track is essentially a country song with extended instrumental breaks.

The album opens with “My Home’s In Alabama”, written by Teddy Gentry. I am not sure, but I think this track is a remake of the single released on MDJ. The track runs 6+ minutes and received considerable airplay after this album was released:

Drinkin’ was forbidden in my Christian country home
I learned to play the flattop on them good ol’ gospel songs
Then I heard about the barrooms just across the Georgia line
Where a boy could make a livin’ playin’ guitar late at night
Had to learn about the ladies; too young to understand
Why the young girls fall in love with the boys in the band
When the boys turn to music, the girls just turn away
To some other guitar picker in some other late night place

The next track is another Gentry-Owen composition “Hangin’ Up My Travelin’ Shoes”, a song which might have made a decent single but definitely not a better single than the actual singles that were released. The song is an up-tempo song about what the narrator is going to do now that he’s found the girl of his dreams:

‘I’m folding up my wings for you, I’m hanging up my travelin’ shoes’.

Teddy Gentry and Richard Scott penned “Why Lady Why” which was the second official RCA single released and the band’s second #1 single. The single was a slow ballad which Owen was able to wrap his vocal cords around to great effect. It is a nice ballad, although not especially country.

“Getting Over You” by Cary Rutledge, is a slow ballad , a good song but not particulary single-worthy. The next song, “I Wanna Come Over” written by Richard & Michael Berardi, actually was a single on MDJ, although I don’t recall hearing it while it was in single release.

“Tennessee River” was the first single released from the album and the first major label release for Alabama. It shot straight to #1 and has remained in the repertoire of bar bands and cover bands since it was first released 35 years ago. This upbeat song features a hot fiddle and was a great number for dancing (not that I, with my two left feet, ever danced to it):

I was born across the river in the mountains where I call home.
Lord, times were good there, don’t know why I ever roamed.

[Chorus]
Oh, Tennessee River and a mountain man, we get together anytime we can.
Oh, Tennessee River and a mountain man, we play together in mother nature’s band

Me and my woman’s done made our plans on the Tennessee River, walkin’ hand in hand
Gonna raise a family, lord settle down where peace and love can still be found

“Some Other Place, Some Other Time” was written by Jeff Cook and features Jeff on lead vocals. The song is a nostalgic ballad and frankly, I don’t understand why RCA insisted that Randy Owen be the ‘face of the franchise’ as far as single releases were concerned.

Teddy Gentry wrote “Can’t Forget About You”, a nice ballad that was simply too long (5:39) to consider as a single. Yes, I know “My Home’s In Alabama” runs 6:27 and was issued as a single but that was a pre-RCA release.

“Get It While It’s Hot” was written by all three band members and Richard Scott. It’s kind of a funky R&B number, perhaps more suitable for dancing than listening. I regard it as the weakest track on the album, but it likely never was meant to be anything more that an album track.

The album closes with another Jeff Cook lead vocal on a track Jeff wrote with Richard Scott. “Keep On Dreamin’” is an excellent mid-tempo that would have made a good single.

I suspect this album featured more and better musicians that Alabama had available to them on MDJ, as the additional musicians are a Who’s Who of ace session men, including Jack Eubanks on acoustic guitar, Sonny Garrish on pedal steel guitar, Terry McMillan on percussion and Fred Newell on electric guitar. Alabama’s Jeff Cook plays lead guitar, with Teddy Gentry on bass guitar, Randy Owen on rhythm guitar and Mark Herndon on drums. All of the band members are involved with the vocal harmonies.

My Home’s In Alabama really got the ball rolling for the band, reaching #3 on the country album charts and #71 on Billboard’s all genre albums chart. Successful as this album was, the next eight albums would all reach #1 country and the next three would be top ten albums on the all genres album chart. As Frank Sinatra once sang “The Best Is Yet To Come”.

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.