Editor’s note: How eerie; I had just started writing this piece last week, after it had occurred to me that I’d yet to write about Alabama on this website. I had put it on hold due to not really liking the direction it was heading in, but with Jeff Cook’s recent passing, I think it’s time to finish it. Rest in peace, and thanks for the music. – Zack
It’s fair to say that no group has affected country music’s commercial success as much as Alabama, a family-based act that dominated the charts between the 1980s and early-to-mid ’90s. And it’s also fair to ask this: Just how does one remember the band today? Some remember them first and foremost for their southern-rock-influenced country jams like “Mountain Music” and “Song of the South,” adventurous in spirit and tried-and-true in their simple themes of down home living. Some may remember them more for their very of-the-era, crossover-ready pop-country like “Love in the First Degree” or “Take Me Down.” Couple that melting pot of sounds with a knack for strong, Eagles-esque harmonies, and it’s not wonder why the comparison I just made puts this particular band at odds with country music history; fans loved them, and critics thought they were polished and boring. What to do?
No matter how one remembers them or how well their music has aged today, their background is certainly anything but uninteresting. Comprised mainly around lead singer/guitarist Randy Owen, lead guitarist/fiddler Jeff Cook, and bassist Teddy Gentry, these three cousins formed the popular band (Mark Herndon, a rock ‘n’ roller from Massachusetts, would join later, although his actual status of placement within the band remains a source of tension today). Owen and Gentry grew up playing at snake-handling services at a Holiness church on Lookout Mountain on the Georgia line. Cook hailed from Fort Wayne, and together the three played beer joints, barn dances, VFW and American Legion halls, and, for three years, at an amusement park near Fort Payne, playing backup for visiting Grand Ole Opry stars like Cal Smith and Jeanne Pruett. They even won a trip to the Opry itself through a local talent contest and got to shake hands with Lester Flatt.
Originally calling themselves Wildcountry, the cousins (along with a slew of various drummers) spent their summers in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, playing for tips at a resort. Their band name came from their motto of playing whatever the fans requested, which typically included anything from country to rock and soul. Their versatility was their greatest asset – one woman even pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of her brasserie and requested “Roomful of Roses” once, a ’40s song covered at the time by Mickey Gilley. The band played, and she pulled out another bill. And another. By 1977, they changed their name to Alabama and were signed to a small label. Their first single only reached No. 77 on Billboard’s country chart, but they did release three albums paid for themselves and sold them from the stage.
By 1979, Mark Herndon joined the group as their permanent drummer, and they released a second single through another independent label. But as far as the big time was concerned, they still had a tough road ahead. Major labels in Nashville claimed they just weren’t interested in groups. That tune changed in 1980, when the band’s own “My Home’s in Alabama” hit the top 20 and the band performed the song as well as future single “Tennessee River” at a “new faces” show in Nashville. Impressed by the band’s harmonies, showmanship, and instrumental prowess, RCA signed them, hoping to pit them against MCA’s Oak Ridge Boys and Mercury/PolyGram’s Statler Brothers.
And … it worked. “Tennessee River” became the band’s first No. 1 hit, and 20 more followed right afterward, a streak only broken by the top ten-peaking “Tar Top,” in 1987. They became country music’s first million-selling band, as well as the first country group to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year award (which they won three years in a row, from 1982-84). And they did it all through sweet love songs and nostalgic odes to rural life. They were rebellious enough in image and song to appeal to younger fans, and their gentle harmonies, sentimental soft spots, and old-fashioned family values also made them popular to older audiences. Critics, however, weren’t as impressed, often citing their music as flaccid and insipid.
It wasn’t a completely unfair assessment. After all, safe and straight down the middle was how the band preferred to operate. “We don’t make a big hoopla about nothin’, really,” Randy Owen told journalist Bob Allen in the mid-’80s. “We’re not out to teach big lessons or speak philosophically about anything. We don’t put hidden messages in our music.”
But I think the deeper discussion is more complex than that. After all, this is a group that emerged off the tail-end of country music’s outlaw movement of the ’70s, when anti-heroes and so-called musical outlaws were praised for working against the system, rather than with it, as they did. And though self-contained bands like them ruled rock ‘n’ roll during the same decade, country failed to establish one of their own bands like that. Certain acts, like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Charlie Daniels Band, found success within but still mostly operated from afar. Regardless of how one remembers their music today, one can’t deny that Alabama was an important band to country music – to its growth, its commercial success, and to breaking down barriers.
After all, by the mid-’80s, plenty of groups were launched hoping to replicate Alabama’s success. Just as the Judds would later give way to vocal groups and small family ensembles through Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the O’Kanes, and the Forester Sisters, Alabama gave way to acts like the harmony-driven Restless Heart and the equally shaggy Sawyer Brown. And from them followed Highway 101, Shenandoah, the Mavericks, Diamond Rio, and bands from pop and rock that entered the country fold, like Exile, the Desert Rose Band, Southern Pacific, and, perhaps ironically enough, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Maybe they did rely on a proven established country-rock formula concocted by influences such as the Eagles and Bob Seger, but they brought that formula over to country music and burst the gates wide open.
And in country music’s lean years of the early ’80s – particularly the Urban Cowboy fallout from 1982-86 – that was needed. The band’s profitability helped major labels take chances on newer performers, and they brought over younger listeners reared on rock to country music, building bridges where there once stood walls. And they did it through simple, catchy songs meant to get listeners through their days; nothing more, nothing less. They said farewell in 2003 and retired, but the group was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Maybe they did rely on familiar traditions, but they alao created their own and forever changed country music.