Alabama - Biography
By J Poet
In their decades-long career, Alabama emerged as the biggest self-contained country band in history, having taken home six Grammys for country and gospel music, landed 42 #1 hits on the country charts, and having sold over 73 million records in the course of their career. After the group broke up in 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) named Alabama “The Country Group of the 20th Century.” In 2005, they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Randy Owen was born in Fort Payne, Alabama in 1949. He played guitar as a boy and graduated from Fort Payne High School and Jacksonville State University. His first cousin, Teddy Gentry, was also born in Fort Payne, in 1952. He too was a life-long musician, but after graduating from high school he took various day jobs working in supermarkets, carpet stores and on farms. Owen and Gentry’s mutual friend Jeff Cook had been playing lead guitar and keyboards in bands since he was 13 years old, and worked as a country DJ during his high school years.
The trio of Owen, Gentry and Cook began playing together in 1969, while Owen was still in college. Each guy worked day jobs while playing nights and weekends as Young Country. When Owen graduated from Jacksonville State in 1973, the band moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to play the beach scene, now calling themselves Wildcountry. In 1979, after running through dozens of drummers, they signed up Mark Herndon a Springfield, Massachusetts Marine brat who had a strong reputation on the beach circuit. That same year, they independently put out an LP with a working name of Alabama, and managed to break onto the country album charts. One of the album’s singles—“My Home’s in Alabama”—went to #5.
In 1980, the group again relocated, this time to Nashville, and they landed a slot on the New Faces Show at the Country Radio Seminar. This proved to be a notable career-making gig, as RCA’s Joe Galante caught Alabama’s set and signed them up. The self-titled Alabama (1980 RCA)—their double-platinum debut—included a remake of “My Home’s in Alabama” and the eventual #1 hit, “Tennessee River.” The latter song would be the first of 21 consecutive chart-topping songs by the band. In a genre dominated by producers, studio musicians and songwriters, Alabama stood out as a self-contained unit, both in playing and songwriting. Their casual stage clothes and blue-collar aura attracted legions of young fans to their shows.
Some critics carped that their Allman Brothers meet The Beatles sound leaned in a little too close to pop, but fans—both pop and country—ate it up. Feels So Right (1981 RCA) included the crossover hits “Feels So Right” and “Love in the First Degree,” and went platinum four times over.
Mountain Music (1982 RCA) won a Grammy in the Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal category for the title track, and went pop with “Close Enough to Perfect.” The album sold over five millions units. The title-track of The Closer You Get (1983 RCA) on the follow-up album saw another Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal Grammy award, and the wild success continued as it went platinum four times.
By the mid-1980s, Alabama were selling out large venues everywhere they toured. The live album, Roll On (1984 RCA), contained three #1 hits—“Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” “When We Make Love,” and “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band).” The next album, 40 Hour Week (1985 RCA), had three more chart-topping hits—“There’s No Way,” “40 Hour Week,” and “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”
The tops of the charts is where the band continued to visit with The Touch (1986 RCA), which scored two more #1 singles with “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” and “You’ve Got’ the Touch.” Just Us (1987 RCA) had a #1 duet with K.T. Oslin, “Face to Face,” and “Fallin’ Again.”
As the glorious 1980s drew to a close, Alabama put out Southern Star (1989 RCA), and they capped their success with “Song of the South,” “If I Had You,” “Southern Star,” and “High Cotton”—all of them hitting #1. Segues into novel albums earlier in the decade such as Alabama Christmas (1985 RCA) and Alabama: Greatest Hits (1986 RCA) also sold well, each topping four millions copies.
Beginning in 1990, Alabama slowed down a bit. They toured less and sales began to decline, but the band remained at the top of their game. Pass It on Down (1990 RCA) had the #1 single, “Jukebox in My Mind,” and the archly named Cheap Seats (1993 RCA) had the hit, “Reckless.” In subsequent years Alabama released In Pictures (1995 RCA), Dancin’ on the Boulevard (1997 RCA), Twentieth Century (1999 RCA), When It All Goes South (2001 RCA) and the live double-disc, The Farewell Tour (2003 RCA).
In 2001 the band started a successful Gospel collaboration with The Blind Boys Of Alabama. They shared Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album Grammys with the Blind Boys for Spirit Of The Century (2001 Real World), Higher Ground (2002 Real World), Go Tell It On The Mountain (2003 Real World) and There Will Be A Light (2004 Virgin).
For a quick overview of the band’s career pick up Alabama: Greatest Hits (1986 RCA), Alabama: Greatest Hits II (1991 RCA), and Alabama: Greatest Hits III (1994 RCA).