Alabama still playing that good old mountain music
When beloved musical performers announce their retirement, fans often suspect and hope that they are only taking a break. And they are often right.
In country music, that prediction turned out to be true with Garth Brooks and Brooks Dunn — and now, Alabama, a legendary band that has come out of retirement for its 50th Anniversary Tour coming to PPG Paints Arena on March 15.
Members of Alabama — considered the most successful band in country-music history, with more than 200 industry awards — announced their retirement in 2003. Michael McCall, a writer for Country Music Magazine at the time, did an interview for a special issue on the band. The members seemed serious about retiring at the time, says McCall, now an editor and writer for publications at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.
“I think sometimes, when you’ve had some time away from stuff … you realized you missed each other and had a special chemistry,” he says. “I think they wanted to give it at least one more shot before it’s too late.
Alabama began when a trio of cousins – Randy Owen, Jeff Cook, and Teddy Gentry — from Fort Payne, Ala., went to Myrtle Beach, S.C. in the summer of 1969 to play at a bar called The Bowery. The band and its members have gone through many changes over the years. The band parted ways with its drummer, Mark Herndon. Lead singer Randy Owen did solo work for a while. Jeff Cook, the guitarist and vocalist, has Parkinson’s disease; he still plays now, but the neurological disease will eventually make him unable to play the guitar. Teddy Gentry — who plays the bass guitar and sings — runs his Bent Tree Farms, and has co-written many of Alabama’s hits.
Band members, McCall says, are in their late 60s and thinking that if they are going to reunite and tour, they’d better do it now.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more,” he says about Alabama tours.
All the classics
In this era of music when the line between country and pop music is blurry, Alabama’s music – which includes classic hits such as “Love in the First Degree,” “Song of the South,” and “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” – sounds pretty traditional and purely country. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Alabama did not sound traditional – the band had an edgy, innovative sound that was beyond the boundaries of country music at the time, McCall says.
Alabama band members also had an unconventional look in their heyday, with longer hair. They also made the first self-contained country band – a band that plays its own instruments – that had such great success, McCall says. Other country bands, like the Oak Ridge Boys, only sang the music but didn’t play the instruments.
Alabama is also known for a wholesome image and clean songs – not the outlaw stuff from the same era – and for charity fundraising, like for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Like Garth Brooks did in the ‘90s, Alabama brought country music to a wider audience, and sold millions of albums in a genre that didn’t previously have as much broad appeal, McCall says.
“They led, then became a big part of country music,” he says. “Many bands may not have had a chance if it weren’t for Alabama.”
Band members weren’t available for interviews. Owen says this in a press release:
“We never thought playing for tips at The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that 50 years later, we would still be playing arenas, stadiums and festivals. Teddy, Jeff and I are humbled at the amount of fans that are coming out to see us. We are finding out that we are playing to three generations of fans who have followed us and our music from day one. The fans are the ones responsible for our continued success on the road and we love them.”