Cover of Pollstar’s July 15, 2019 issue
Early in Alabama’s ascent, RCA Nashville’s Joe Galante knew something crazy was going on. Booked to open for Jimmy Buffett in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the unthinkable happened.
“Greg Fowler [Alabama’s tour manager] came into the dressing room,” the former chief of what ultimately became Sony Music Nashville recalls, “and said, ‘Guys, Jimmy wants to go on first. He wants you guys to close.’ It was hard to get your head around.”
Alabama, the scrappy trio of three cousins from Fort Payne, Alabama, shouldn’t have happened. Long hair, baseball jerseys, jeans, beards, sneakers, lead singer/rhythm guitarist Randy Owen, lead guitarist/singer Jeff Cook and bass player/singer Teddy Gentry spent years knocking around bars, including Myrtle Beach’s famed Bowery, without ever catching hold. They didn’t look like what was happening in country music, and as a band who played their instruments, they didn’t sound like the vocal groups of the day.
Photo Courtesy Alabama Archives – Don’t Try This At Home:
Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry and Randy Owen in concert at Madison Square Garden in the 1980s.
Funny thing about talent, the will to connect and the faith to be who you are: when it works, it works. Though signed to an imploding indie label, Alabama had its 1980 album My Home’s In Alabama – with “Why Lady Why” and “Tennessee River” headed for the No. 1 on tined to be a unifying anthem without being a single. Written by Owen with three-part harmonies forged through hours of experimentation, Alabama’s sound and songs captured the way younger Americans were living.
Those two chart-toppers were followed by 21 consecutive No. 1s, including “Old Flame,” “Feels So Right,” “Love In The First Degree,” “Mountain Music,” “Take Me Down,” straight into the ‘90s – and ultimately more than 40 No. 1s. Even Brad Paisley tapped them for “Ole Alabama.”
It wasn’t just country, either. Adult Contemporary and Top 40 played them, too.
“It wasn’t intentional, what we did to survive,” Cook remembers. “We learned covers by everybody, straight country stuff, rock and roll, bluegrass, gospel. We learned all that at the Bowery, and it came with us. When we started writing, we adapted all that to our songs so we could do them onstage.”
“There’s no way you could expect what happened,” Owen, who wrote most of their initial hits, reflects. “But I think the crossover was in the live concerts more than radio airplay. It was people coming to see us. Even early, we played pretty much the way we would in Myrtle Beach for tips. We’d only had a few hits, but we knew: keep the energy up, make sure the people felt you.”
Fifty years later, Alabama – now in the Country Music Hall of Fame – still connects.
Photo Courtesy Alabama Archives – Jeff Cook and Randy Owen Shredding
Outback Concerts’ Mike Smardak, who’s promoting Alabama’s 50th Anniversary Tour, agrees. “It’s a high energy show; you’re on your feet the entire time. They’ve had over 43 No. 1 singles, sold 80 million records world wide, are the most-awarded band in the history of country music. The music is timeless … and this tour is a celebration of their 50-year history, all while ushering in a new generation of fans who may have never had a chance to see them before.”
“To walk onstage now is kind of wonderful,” Gentry admits. “Especially seeing all kinds of ages out there. Some of them weren’t born when the songs were happening, and it drives me. I still wanna get up there and kick their butts! I don’t wanna just play the hits, I want every show to be the best one we’ve ever played.”
Alabama has always been that act. Whether playing three shifts at the Bowery on holiday weekends rather than having them hire a couple other bands, or barnstorming America as new RCA signings, including showcases at L.A.’s Roxy and New York City’s Bottom Line, they were intent on making their moment matter. Gentry recalls: “We all thought, ‘I got one chance to get in the game, and I’m gonna swing as hard as I can every time …’ When we finished an album, we started diligently looking for songs, writing and working on the harmony and the music.”
They also brought that fire to their live shows. Because the wave broke so hard and so fast, they almost couldn’t keep up. Before going onstage in West Palm Beach, Fla., unable to hear because of the screaming of the fans, Owen remembers, “We could hear the yelling, and stuck our heads out the dressing room door to ask who was playing here, and somebody said, ‘This band Alabama.’ When we got onstage, we couldn’t hear over the fans – and they couldn’t hear the music, either.” Pandemonium like this didn’t exist in the world of George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta. If Alabama didn’t look like normal country stars, it figured they couldn’t tour the same way, either. Recognizing hard work went into the money people paid for their tickets, they had to amp up their sound.
Investigating the best sound systems available led Owen and a friend to Memphis Coliseum to see Bob Seger, whose brand of heartland rock had the same lyric-driven presence. Impressed by his system’s power, they’d found what they needed. Only, it was the only one.
Betting on the future, they bought it.
Dale Morris, who managed the band throughout the ‘80s, remembers, “My big fear was it wouldn’t have been enough! You’d had to be there … I’d been to a lot of rock concerts, but the intensity was in such a good, not drugged-out or crazy way, just for the music. Nobody ever came close.
“Alabama were the working class, but more, they were the solid American South. Nobody painted a better picture of that way of life than Alabama – and it worked everywhere.”
It sure did. George Moffatt, Don Romeo and Betty Kaye formed a holding company to block-purchase the “new” band for July, August and September to corner the fair, festival and Disney business.
Photo Courtesy Alabama Archives – RANDY OWEN AND TEDDY GENTRY
“They were exploding so much,” Variety Attractions’ Bill Magann remembers, who covered their first few dates, “George said, ‘Just stay with them. It’s so big so fast, I want you going in a day ahead to make sure the boys get everything they need.’ They’d never seen that kind of crazy, so we were making sure they had enough security, the stage could handle the production. They’d gone from playing to 1,500 to 2,500 in a grandstand to 10,000 people or more – and that [production] was something they’d never seen.”
“The highest priced, we didn’t think of it like that, we just wanted to give the fans the best show,” Owen says of the shift. “We didn’t look at it like rock ’n’ roll, either. We weren’t making a statement, we were just trying to make sure everyone could hear, and we had enough room to run around and reach all those people.”
Owen laughs, looking back, thinking about all that energy. And who they were in terms of fitting in. “To RCA and the producers, we were like wild buffalos! We’d been cooped up in all these little nightclubs, working so hard, rehearsing our music, writing, figuring out those harmonies and dreaming. Once it hit, we felt so free, open, loved and cared for by the fans! It was just a lovefest every time we got onstage.”
Galante remembers Alabama breaking through. “Before Alabama, the kids were only at country shows because their parents dragged them. But Alabama struck a chord with them. One after another, the songs hit home – and not just hits, but copyrights for the ages. With Waylon and Willie, it was politicians and movie stars showing up; they were New York, San Francisco, Seattle. But Alabama was everywhere; born of the South, they understood anyone who worked. They went to the people and played for them.” AEG Presents SVP John Valentino was working with Jon Stoll at South Florida’s Fantasma Productions when he saw the band showcase at an obscure club outside Fort Lauderdale.
“Someone told us we had to see them, and since we weren’t (Cellar Door Concerts), we were always very aggressive about booking things a little outside that we believed in. They were high energy, leaning into each other, really playing their instruments – and I remember thinking, ‘This is a game changer.’ They rivaled the rock bands, and that’s saying something.”
Fantasma Productions put them in Florida fairs, built their relationship with Alabama’s team. On April 12, 1986, they headlined a field – sharing the stage with hero and now regular 50th anniversary support Charlie Daniels – just outside West Palm with 8,500 paid.
It was massive, and something they began in an attempt to get the money country acts made more aligned with the rock acts of the time.
“There were promoters for all the buildings,” Morris recalls. “They called the shots, and country acts were held to a ceiling of around $25,000. We decided we could go close by, find somewhere outdoors big enough, charge $10 a ticket and make the same money. We’d outgrown the country model within the first year and a half – in terms of production, the way the boys went out there and played, the tickets sold. We were just trying to level the playing field.
“When we brought in our own sound and lights, Alabama blew the back out of Rupp Arena. With the right sound, they knew how to do it, and boy, did they!” They were also smart about reaching beyond what had been done before. Bill Graham was a big supporter. “Bill just liked us,” Owen says. “He saw something in us, and really helped. We were lucky, the people like Bill and Dick Clark really believed.”
Photo by John Russell / CMA – Crimson Tide:
Alabama performing at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest 2014 in Nashville.
Barry Fey of Feyline Concerts was another. As the band started working with rock promoters, they did 10 dates in their region. AEG Presents Rocky Mountains’ Chuck Morris remembers, “They always picked great songs, wrote and found things that were not only memorable, but the fans could hang onto.
“They had that first hit, then the second, then they couldn’t be stopped. It was hard to miss they were going to be a big band,” adds Morris, who went on to manage Lyle Lovett, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Highway 101 and the Desert Rose Band in the ’80s. “More importantly, they broke the mold and all the rules. Suddenly, it was a very different Nashville, where bands like mine could have a real career.”
Even after their farewell tour, Alabama’s presence was large. They went into the Hall of Fame; their songs still got played. Kids were pumping fists to “Mountain Music,” howling “Roll On, 18 Wheeler” or bopping to “She & I.” Doing nothing, the band still mattered.
When storms ravaged their home state in 2011, Cook, Gentry and Owen realized they could make a difference. Tapping CAA’s Blake McDaniel as their agent, they began setting up a benefit concert to raise money – once again – for people in need. Beyond Owen’s aggressive championing of St Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the annual June Jam, their generosity became the gateway to bringing all this music to the fans. “We were working 15, 16 hour days for six weeks,” McDaniel remembers. “Being from Alabama, I was raised on them. They were deities to me, so I couldn’t screw this up. And I learned so much working for them, what made them icons, the steps they took to help make this a reality. They didn’t worry about all the work, just that things were done right.”
After almost a decade dormant, they decided to test the waters as a live act. McDaniel booked a theater tour that instantly sold out.
In 2013, they enlisted legendary manager/agent Tony Conway (former CEO and co-president of Buddy Lee Attractions, whose client list included Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, The Highwaymen, Bill Monroe, The Dixie Chicks, Roy Orbison, George Strait, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap and Emmylou Harris) and things got serious for the band who’ve played every song like their life depended on it.
Photo by Jenn Curtis – WAVE YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR:
Alabama plays Fan Appreciation Weekend 2019 in Fort Payne, Ala., on June 22, 2019.
“Legends like this come along once in a lifetime,” Conway says. “Not just for the mark they made with their music and their touring, but the way they do business and treat people. When they started back out, people from little kids to folks who were adults when the band’s hits were coming out … and everyone was having a great time, especially the band.
“The guys change the set list up, take requests. You see children with signs that say ‘This is my first Alabama concert,’ and you realize they know the music so well because they’ve heard their parents’ Alabama records since they were born. Or you see couples who come and dance, because it’s the band they fell in love with. There are people who’re struggling with their health.
“They’re playing arenas again, big places they were playing in their prime. It’s crazy the business they’re doing. Except when you think about the 41 No. 1s, the kind of shows they put on, people know they’re going to have a good time.”
Even with Cook’s Parkinson’s disease keeping him away from some of the dates, the band is maintaining a full schedule of three weeks on, then one off. Mostly two days at a stint, but occasionally three or four on a run. Support is friends like Daniels, Restless Heart, John Anderson, Tracy Lawrence and fans including Scotty McCreery.
“They are the American Dream,” McDaniel offers. “They come from the cotton fields of Alabama, sons of sharecroppers. They sang songs that gave hope to so many people, and they still live in Fort Payne, still drive home after a show at the Grand Ole Opry because that’s where their heart is. This year, they’re grossing four times what they did in 2011; but they don’t do it for that, they do it because they love it and the people they play for.”