Personalities | Alabama | Mainstream Country

Alabama, who appropriately came from Fort Payne, in Alabama, emerged into the spotlight in 1980, when ‘Tennessee River’ topped the Billboard country charts. Three group members – Randy Owen (guitar, lead vocals, b. 1949), Teddy Gentry (bass, vocals, b. 1952) and Jeff Cook (keyboards, fiddle, vocals, b. 1949) – were cousins.

Country music was going through one of its regular transitional periods, trying to escape from the ‘Urban Cowboy’ era, a time when the music was heavily diluted for commercial rather than aesthetic reasons, and was hardly recognizable as country. The emergence of the all-conquering Alabama, who merged southern country rock with contemporary sounds, ended the dominance enjoyed by The Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Brothers in both the charts and the annual Country Music Association awards.

The Midas Touch

Formed originally in 1969 as Young Country, then Wildcountry, by Gentry, Cook and Owen plus drummers Bennett Vartanian (until 1976) and Mark Herndon (after 1979, b. 1955), they became Alabama in 1977, towards the end of a seven-year residency at The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they played up to 13 hours some days. They had genuinely paid their dues, and were rewarded in July 1980 when they signed a record deal with RCA.

Not renowned for working with country groups, RCA was well served over the next 20 years. By 1993, Alabama had accumulated 32 country No. 1 hit singles, including a record 21 consecutive chart-toppers, starting with ‘Tennessee River’ (1980). After that, it seemed everything they touched turned to gold. An Artist Of The Decade award came as no surprise for arguably country music’s hardest-working act.

Songs Of The South

Frequently displaying a love of the American South in their songs, as epitomized by 1982’s ‘Mountain Music’ – the title track of an album certified quadruple platinum and the second of three consecutive albums that made the Top 20 of the US pop chart – Alabama could have rivalled The Eagles as a mainstream attraction. However, perhaps songs like ‘If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)’ (1984), ‘Song Of The South’ (1988), ‘High Cotton’ and ‘Southern Star’ (both 1989) seemed a bit provincial to younger, hipper audiences, and prevented Alabama from crossing over into the biggest arena. They did not do badly, though – 15 US pop chart albums by 1992, all gold or better, and three Top 20 singles (‘Feels So Right’, ‘Love In The First Degree’ and ‘Take Me Down’, all in the early 1980s) is an achievement few have bettered.

Their sales are now approaching 60 million, largely due to their annual sell-out tours across North America. Their total absence from the UK pop chart until 1986, when they sang backing vocals on Lionel Richie’s ‘Deep River Woman’ suggests that Alabama were happy with their domestic success and uninterested in conquering Europe.

Alabama became an institution, and were much honoured in the CMA Awards,...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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