Alabama Sunny About When It All Goes South

To see the animation with which the members of Alabama talk about their new album, you’d think it was their first for RCA rather than their 23rd.

They have good reason to be pleased with their work. When It All Goes South, out today (Jan. 16), is a solid 15-cut package with something for everyone — songs about love old and new, loss, loneliness, taking stock, savoring the moment and basking in the sensual joys of Southern living. Pop singers Christopher Cross and Jann Arden are featured on two of the selections.

A few days before the album’s release, the Fort Payne Four met with reporters in a conference room at RCA to discuss their latest creation.

“It’s diverse,” said singer and bassist Teddy Gentry. “It’s a bouquet of music.”

“We ended up with 15 songs,” lead singer Randy Owen explained, “because we felt like there were no throwaways.”

The first single from the album is the title cut. “[It] reminds me of some of the music from the ’70s, when we were down in Myrtle Beach,” Gentry noted, alluding to the group’s long-ago days as a bar band. “A lot of Southern rock music came out at that time. The groove was the first thing that attracted me. It’s kind of poking fun at ourselves in a way. We’ve been performing the song on the stage since about the middle of [last] summer — with very good response.”

Asked what they expected from the song, lead guitarist Jeff Cook snapped, “I expect the 43rd No. 1 single out of it — that’s what I expect.” Obviously attuned to precision, Cook later corrected a reporter who observed that Alabama has had more No. 1 singles than any other country band. “More No. 1s than any band in any field,” he said.

While noting that the album came in over budget, Owen said that the extra time and money spent had enabled the band to do the job right. “I always go back and hear things vocally that I don’t like, that I think I could have done better,” he explained. “Because of the folks here at RCA and a lot of patience on the part of engineers and everything, I got to do the vocals the way I wanted to do them. I’m very, very thankful for that. It may not be perfect or it may not sound perfect or maybe people won’t understand the reasons why I did certain things, but I got to do all the vocals and mix pretty much like I wanted.”

The album’s two duets — “Love Remains” with Gentry and Christopher Cross and “Will You Marry Me” with Owen and Jann Arden — were inspired not by the idea of multiplied starpower but by the nature of the songs.

“’Love Remains’ was pitched to us by [producer] Josh Leo,” Gentry said. “We didn’t cut it initially. But I kept going back and listening to the song. And the more I listened to it, the more it sounded like something Christopher Cross would do. Of course, I was a fan from the ’70s, when he had ’Sailing,’ ’Ride Like the Wind,’ all those songs. [Producer/songwriter] Mark Wright is a friend of mine, and he introduced me to Michael Omartian, who had produced the stuff for Cross. He liked the song and sent it to Chris … It just kind of grew from the song, I guess, not from any relationship we had in the past. I really didn’t know Chris. I’d met him only one time before. But he turned out to be a very nice guy. We had a lot of fun working in the studio together.”

“I think there are a lot of artists you’d like to work with,” Owen chimed in. “But, like Teddy was talking about, I think the song has to cry out for that voice … My son and I were riding around and I said, ’You know, I think it ought to be a girl singing with me’ [on ’Will You Marry Me.’] And he says, ’Why don’t you try Jann Arden?’ I couldn’t believe he remembered [her single] ’Insensitive.’ That was one of my favorite songs.

“But what had really turned us on to her and that song all over again was seeing an Anne Murray special on PBS. Anne was singing all her hits, and she invited Jann Arden onstage. Jann came out with her acoustic guitar, and she and Anne and some other gal sang ’Insensitive’ as an acoustic set. It just knocked me out. I thought ’Will You Marry Me’ lent itself to that little soft, tender voice, that innocent kind of voice that Jann has. I’d never seen her before except on TV, and we’d never met. I knew it was a shot in the dark, but [producer] James [Stroud] called her people, and she loved the song.”

A common favorite in the new collection, the band members agreed, is “Start Living,” a wistful ballad about waiting too late to enjoy life.

Alabama has been inhabiting the top rung of the charts since “Tennessee River” went No. 1 in 1980. One of the reporters asked the band members to explain this enduring appeal. “I think young people … are more perceptive about who’s real and who’s not out there, especially in music,” speculated drummer Mark Herndon. “It’s very important in their lives. When we get out and tour and do a live show, it’s pretty honest music — it’s a meat-and-potatoes performance. It’s good and loud and it’s got an edge to it. I think they dig that. They want that. There’s lots of stuff out there right now that’s not real.”

Owen said he tries to keep current with musical trends. “I’m a listener,” he noted. “I like to pay a lot of attention to what my kids say. They listen to a lot of music, and we talk about a lot of music. If I hear something new that I haven’t heard before, I ask the kids who it is, and they can usually tell me everything about it.” One of Owen’s favorite acts these days, he said, is Sugar Ray.

Gentry pointed to the band’s flexibility: “We’ve always been able to walk that fine line — because our fans give us the freedom to do so — between a stone country song, like ’I Can’t Love You Any Less,’ to ’When It All Goes South,’ which is almost a Southern rock groove with Alabama’s country vocals on it.”

This year, Alabama has been nominated for a Grammy for the song “Twentieth Century,” a piece Owen admitted “wasn’t one of my favorites.” Even so, he said the band is always excited when it receives an award nomination. “We’ll get in the car or on the bus and talk about it. It’s an honor. It’s a pleasure … For me, it’s really special because of my kids. They’re old enough now to know what a Grammy is. Back in the days of the ’80s, when awards were coming left and right, all they were thinking about was, ’Daddy, why don’t you stay home?'”

In spite of its laurels and longevity, Alabama is not thinking about retirement, Owen said in response to a question. “I think the fans and the industry will let us know [when it’s time.] … We’ll go into another facet of entertainment. We all have our own ideas about the music business. We’ve all learned a lot of things. We’re not just going away somewhere and hide.”

Gentry said that the band remains the most important part of his life. “It’s what I live for. I talked about it with my wife the other day. Nobody loves their family any more than I do or their kids any more than I do, but my life revolves around Alabama. It’s been the No. 1 thing in my life the last 30 years. Everybody had to realize that everything else came second. I hate to say that my family didn’t come first, but my family never came first. If there was sickness or a problem, yes, but my life revolved around Alabama.”

Prompted by a question about their political differences, Cook said the band had none concerning the recent presidential election. “We were all for Bush,” he said matter-of-factly. Ever conciliatory, Owen added, “One thing we don’t do is get on stage and talk about politics. We leave the stage to the fans, whether they’re Independent, Democrat, Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Native American — that’s their stage.”

Except for occasional promotional appearances, the band plans to take this summer off. In the fall, it will tour Canada.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to