Alabama’s Still a Hometown Band On a Spectacular Run
originally published June 24, 1997
Talk about staying power. When Alabama's first No. 1 hit "Tennessee River" reached the top of the charts, America was watching Dallas on TV, Urban Cowboy at the movie theater and listening to Eddie Rabbitt sing "Drivin' My Life Away" on the radio.
Seventeen years later, the boys from Fort Payne, Ala., are as hot as ever, singing one hook-filled hit after another, including their latest, "Sad Lookin' Moon."
"We write a lot, and we can fall back on our own material," guitarist Jeff Cook tells COUNTRY WEEKLY. "We work at the basics, where you make or break a success. In other words, we concentrate on the bricks and mortar."
They've laid enough bricks to build a fortress of hits. From "Tennessee River" onward, Jeff and his bandmates Teddy Gentry, Randy Owen and Mark Herndon have scored a remarkable 32 No. 1 songs. Their 17-year span of No. 1 hits is unmatched by any of their country contemporaries.
They offer as many reasons for their success as there are members of the band.
"We're the luckiest bunch of guys to ever sing," Jeff says.
"I think there has to be a certain amount of luck, but there is also a tremendous amount of desire that I can't describe," Randy adds. "I enjoy doing what I consider to be really good music."
"We don't sing what everybody else does," Teddy explains. "I write by following my heart. What I don't try to do is mimic everybody. If your heart's in it and your spirit's in it, you have to like it."
"A big part of our success is our chemistry," reasons Mark, the rookie member who joined Alabama in 1979. "We share all of our goals."
"We have an identifiable sound," Jeff notes. "If it wasn't for that, I'm not sure we would have the popularity."
That sound, that Alabama sound of beautiful harmonies sung against a backdrop of blended Southern rock, R&B, bluegrass and country, hasn't changed much since "Tennessee River" debuted at No. 48 on Billboard magazine's May 31, 1980 Hot Country Singles chart -- a listing which included the classic George Jones tune "He Stopped Loving Her Today" at No. 11 and rising.
"You're kidding me! That's one of the all-time greatest songs, and it was just out when we were?" Teddy says as he snaps the chart from a reporter's hands to excitedly scan it. "God, I feel old!"
Yet Teddy and his bandmates have remained young in the eyes of generations of fans who first purchased Alabama's RCA debut album My Home's in Alabama at a time when Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, the Oak Ridge Boys and Conway Twitty dominated the charts.
Now, as Alabama's latest, Dancin' on the Boulevard, closes in on gold record status, the band's fan base continues to build while those older acts have seen their glory days pass by. How did Alabama overcome the odds and remain at the top of the charts for 17 years?
"We never took time off," Teddy says. "You've got to keep the fans with you. And,
you've got to stay radio friendly."
They did both recently by embarking on an autograph tour of Kmarts and Wal*Marts across the Midwest and the Deep South, signing merchandise for as many as 3,000 fans at stops sponsored by radio stations. As they chat with COUNTRY WEEKLY, the boys are catching a bite of breakfast in Cleveland, having arrived from Columbus, Ohio, just hours earlier. Later that day, they'll be in Detroit.
That's quite a schedule, but Jeff, a former carpet layer, says, "It's all part of your work ethic formed when you grow up I couldn't do this job with 80 percent of my effort. I feel like you have to keep working harder."
"We've always had a strong feeling about meeting fans face to face," says Randy, who as lead singer is perhaps the most recognizable member. "I enjoy meeting that guy with the calloused hands who's got with him his wife and the two kids and they've bought two Alabama CDs; or the girl in college who likes Alabama and leaves her dorm to come to our show. I'm proud to say thank you to people like that.
"I listen to what the fans have to say," he continues. "I hear that woman when she walks away and she says to her husband, 'He's got his hair long again.' Or 'I like the boots he had on.' Or they'll say what they don't like, like maybe you didn't spend as much time with them as they'd like. I listen to all of that -- and I hear it." Getting heard was a long time in coming for Alabama, which formed in the early '70s as a bar band in Fort Payne called Young Country, playing high school parties. Cousins Randy, Teddy and Jeff decided to take the plunge by moving to Myrtle Beach, S.C., changing their name to Wild Country before settling on their homestate moniker. The band landed a seven-year gig on the Strand at the Bowery nightclub, playing, as they joke, "everything from Acuff to ZZ Top."
"The hours we put in made us better entertainers," Teddy recalls.
"The last two years we worked it, you could get 15 minutes off if the girls wanted to dance to taped music," Jeff says. "Otherwise, we'd work six hours straight, working for tips."
"We'd sit up there and talk for 5-10 minutes until somebody would bring us tips," Teddy adds. "The standard tip was $1. $5 was an instant request -- we'd sing that song next. $10 was a super request, and for $20, we'd stop what we were playing and launch right into your song, whether we knew it or not!"
"That's why we had 800-1,000 songs we could tackle," Jeff notes.
They soon caught the attention of record executives, but they ran into a problem. Music Row preferred groups like The Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys -- entertainers who mostly sang songs other people wrote and performed. Alabama would have none of that: They wanted to write, record and perform their own material, regardless of the industry's fear that bands were more suited to rock 'n' roll and its lifestyle.
RCA relented, resulting in the groundbreaking debut My Home's in Alabama. Soon, classic hits like "Mountain Music," "The Closer You Get" and "Forty Hour Week (For a Livin')" landed Alabama at the top of country music's heap, helping the boys become the first band to be named CMA's Entertainer of the Year, and blazing the path for acts like Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown and Diamond Rio.
"We've had a lot of bands say they want to do what we've done, and that's very flattering," Jeff says.
"Today, bands are the norm," Teddy notes. "And that's very exciting."
Just as exciting is their stage show. Honed by years of nightclub gigs, Alabama remains one of the most entertaining acts -- as an estimated 10 million concertgoers have discovered.
"We've been all over the map, from spending more money on staging and lights to being very basic, and letting the music do the talking," Randy says. "We've all done it for the fans -- from playing places like the Astrodome to performing for 800 people in a club -- all throughout our career.
"It keeps the creative juices flowing. You can't hear what the lady in the second row is saying in Anaheim Stadium, but you can at a concert in the round in Rhode Island, where she's saying, 'Play "So Right" ' each time you spin past."
Of course, it's impossible to play all of their hits. So they stick to the ones that get the fans to their feet. "If the songs aren't causing a racket then you drop them out of the shows pretty fast," Jeff explains. "If the crowd gets excited when you play it then you keep playing it."
"What a great problem to have," Mark admits.
The band has recently added several songs from Dancin' on the Boulevard to their set list -- songs they played live even before recording them.
"We listened to the best 30-40 songs they could find, but we felt the best songs out of Nashville didn't fit us," Teddy explains, speaking of a meeting the band had with RCA label executives and their producer, Don Cook. "We looked at each other, and I said, 'Well, I guess I'll speak up. If this is what you're hearing for us, we're a long way apart,' " Randy adds.
"We pulled out the guitars and played for our label people, and they liked what they heard," Teddy says. "We played 'Sad Lookin' Moon' and they put down their pens and listened intently. They said, 'We've never heard a song like that.' And I said, 'That's because we've never written a song like that!' "
The members admit that in the past they've recorded some songs they didn't necessarily like. "We work for a record label, and that means we don't get our way 100 percent of the time," Teddy notes. "There have been some songs they sent us that I hated, then they became hits and I loved them!" But they quickly note that all of the beach-tinged Dancin' suits them just fine.
"It may not receive critical acclaim, and there's only one song I look at as a thought process, the rest you just put on and listen to," Teddy says. "But I can run down the road and listen to it. It's a very pleasant album to listen to, and I'm saying that still after hearing it 200 times."
"The songs are woven around the experiences and people that influenced us before we were successful. The harmonies, the disco, the R&B, the B=bluegrass -- all that became part of the Alabama sound," Jeff says, before joking, "I think this shag album is the best shag album we've ever done."
"What we did was take raw songs and put them on tape and they came out raw. Don Cook was so good about taking them and not massaging them, so they are real fresh," Randy says. "The vocals are live vocals, I may have gone back and hit a couple of lines again, but I'd rather hear raw, fresh music.
"We wanted the record to feel kind of like The Everly Brothers, where Teddy, Jeff and myself did the background but we did it on one microphone," Randy says.
"It's great for RCA to let us make honest Alabama music, like we made when we hung out, drank beer and chased women down on the Strand. These songs reflect real times in my life. The songs are all about what we knew.
"Recording this was the most fun, upbeat time we ever had in the studio."
Radio has enjoyed the album as much as the band has. That's no surprise.
"Radio made Alabama," Randy says. "They are our friends, but they don't play us just because they know us -- they are too professional for that."
Teddy adds, "Our devotion dates back to the days when I'd take a car and go visit stations in one direction, Jeff would take his car in a different direction, and we'd drive until we saw a radio tower, then stop and drop off our record. It didn't matter what kind of station it was. But eventually, radio folks knew that we were willing to do what it takes to be successful. We never lost that desire."
That desire powered Alabama to an unprecedented string of 21-consecutive No. 1 singles, broken by one memorable tune.
Teddy remembers it well. "We didn't go Number one with 'Tar Top,' which broke our streak of Number one hits. But actually, we didn't do it to make a Number one record."
"We wanted to do a song that meant something to us, a song we loved, instead of just another ditty," Randy recalls of the song about their earliest days.
And their roots mean a lot to the bandmates, especially their hometown of Fort Payne. Their annual June Jam has raised more than $4 million for area charities, and they're doing it again this year on June 21.
"The satisfaction of giving back to the county is very gratifying," Teddy says. "We have one of the best libraries in the state, and I'm proud of that. We see the van for the old folks home running up the road, and I'm happy we could buy that for them."
As the album sales increase -- they've topped 57 million -- and the hits continue, Alabama shows no signs of slowing down.
"I'm having more fun now than I ever have," Teddy says. "You appreciate what an album stands for and how many people it touches."
Yet they realize the more they travel, the more home is where their hearts are.
"We're not glamour and glitz, we're a blue-collar bunch of guys," Randy declares. "We still live where we grew up, and we prefer to be in our own backyard than anywhere else.
"Like this week. On Saturday night, when we get through, we're going straight home. Home to Alabama."