Over the last century there have been entertainers and icons at the threshold of musical innovation. But among these innovators lie the living legends who opened the gateway for a greater change in music. 40 years ago, three musicians left their hometown to perform in front of the drunken crowds around Myrtle Beach. Yet, what the crowds didn’t realize is that they were witnessing the genesis of country music’s greatest band. Alabama is the band that transpired the lifeless beach dive bars to sold-out arenas. Their undying youth, hard-edged lyrics and sex appeal attracted a new generation of audiences to country music. From tip jars to Grammy awards, this is how the trio became the most celebrated country music band today.
In the cotton farms of Fort Payne, Alabama lied three cousins who worked their families’ land. Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry were all nurtured by the strong bluegrass roots that surrounded the area. The trio channeled their love of the music to learning the guitar and singing in their church choir. But life’s commitments would halt any dream of becoming a band for a period. During their separation, each of them had pursued an education and a few odd jobs for easy money. However, their love of music still followed them as they grew to be avid listeners of pop and rock ‘n’ roll. The trio had tried a series of small stints together covering Merle Haggard songs before signing to a small label. Nameless, the trio came up with title “Alabama” in honor of their home. Though, this would eventually sour as their label went bankrupt and left the trio feeling lost yet again. Instead of giving up they chose to resist and fight the industry that thought they were “finished”. This headstrong attitude foreshadowed of what was to come for them in their career.
By word of mouth and independent radio promotion, the trio would burst through the country scene with their single “I Wanna Come Over”. The self-recorded track would be the trio’s first big hit through extensive airplay which made them known nationally. The overnight success astonished the band as Owen recalls “When it happened, it happened so fast we didn’t have time to think…One day we were in Myrtle Beach, and a few days later we were on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. We scared to death. It was amazing.” Labels began lining up to sign Alabama before they settled with RCA Records in 1980. From there, they would embark on the greatest run that a band could ever achieve in their lifetime.
The build up and anticipation would follow with the release of the band’s first RCA single “Tennessee River”. The track from their first major label album, My Home’s in Alabama, would begin a record streak of over 20 number one hits released throughout the entire 1980s. Music critic Kurt Wolff described the band’s style as being “just rebel enough for the young folks, but their parents also dig the boys’ pretty harmonies.” Heavy changes in sound and production would follow with each new release of an album as they blurred the lines of many genres. Their evolution was praised with their third RCA album, Mountain Music. The record bridged the gap between pop and country as Alabama broke national charts for both genres. As their crossover sound grew so did their fanbase as the record went platinum with over 5 million copies sold. Newer, younger fans of country music appeared out of nowhere and followed Alabama religiously. Within a year the band would follow-up with what has been deemed as an essential for every record collection.
The 1983 release of The Closer You Get… hit platinum status almost instantly with fans crazing over their distorted melodies. Alabama’s elaborate sound produced back-to-back hit singles that crossed-over pop and country radio. The self-titled track featured elaborate arrangements credited by fellow contemporaries J.P. Pennington and Mark Gray. Critics hailed the bands altered vocals and accumulated in them winning a Grammy for Best Country Performance. RCA would be instrumental in capping off the band’s coup de grace with the release of a greatest hits’ album and lament them as multinational stars.
Though, Alabama’s star would soon start to burn out as the group began to decline in sales leading into the 90s. Dubbed by AllMusic as “aging veterans”, the group realized they approached the end of an era after being named Artist of the Decade by Billboard. Until they took a leap by collaborating with boy band ‘N Sync for their 1999 album Twentieth Century. The album fared well with their cover of “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You” gaining considerable airplay. Ultimately, the band would fall short of eclipsing their past success and would part ways at the end of their farewell tour in 2004.
Alabama would remain active behind the scenes as songwriters and collaborate with newer artists. Among these artists included Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line as both had paid tribute in past albums. Other mainstream artists acknowledged the group’s impact as catalysts for developing the “Nashville pop” and style. This positive reception sparked new life in their fan base which led to Alabama’s reunion and new tour dates set for the future. Alabama encompassed their headstrong attitude by becoming the most awarded band in the history of country music. While their legacy lives on in the sights and sounds of music city, the trio of cousins simply look towards the “mountains” where they call home.
Written by Trenton Luber