Imagine a sunny, get-a-way day out in the country where the townsfolk are simple, neighborly and appreciate a hard day’s work. There are no skyscrapers, busy streets or even the slightest sounds of traffic turmoil. Landscaped with cotton fields, farmhouses and cattle pastures, the dirtroads that intertwine throughout this beautiful countryside, possibly outweigh the paved roads three to one. The air smells fresher, the grass seems greener and the music heard coming from inside a rehearsal hall downtown couldn’t sound any sweeter. Here in the nestling hills of Fort Payne, Alabama, where the atmosphere seems almost fairytale-like, that sweet sound most likely belongs to the town’s wonderband, Alabama — Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, Jeff Cook and Mark Herndon.
This is home to the band that’s created a musical landmark by selling close to 60 million albums, scoring over 40 No. 1 hits and steering their annual June Jam music festival to a charity success story that’s matchless. But home for super group Alabama is much more than a once a year music fest, rehearsal hall and museum. It’s family, good times and undoubtedly, the heart of where this talented act got its start.
Even deeper into these hills sits Randy’s secluded cabin where a long list of Alabama hits originated. These four extraordinary talents have spent countless hours here with their families and writing songs that have gone on to fill a total of 20 albums for RCA Records.
Having already claimed practically every award possible and performing in the most luxurious venues imaginable, Alabama continues to cling to their deep country roots for their musical inspiration. As Country Music Television’s June Showcase artist, this particular day was no exception. Complete with a museum tour, a performance of several previous hits in the practice hall and a trip out to the cabin for a home-style barbeque, a day with these honest-to-goodness country boys was like reliving the history of one of the most influential acts to ever grace the world of music.
With their latest album, Dancin’ On The Boulevard, the band seriously took a retrospective approach to their music and recultivated some of the same magic that went into their earliest work in both Fort Payne and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The new disc takes its heart and soul from the title cut, a trip back to clubs and music of Myrtle Beach.
“This album is what Alabama is all about,” explains Randy, “from those years on the Boulevard (in Myrtle Beach) to where we are today.”
During the early 70s, it was in Myrtle Beach that these once aspiring young musicians paid their dues in a steamy bar called the Bowrey. For seven long years, the group, formerly known as Young Country before moving away from Fort Payne, played for tips six nights a week. The area also marked drummer Mark Herndon’s addition to the band. Dancing On The Boulevard pays tribute to the music of that era, a time which captured good-time crowds that still “shag” down the boulevard to a festival of summer fun and Alabama-style beach music. Just like their hometown of Fort Payne, the Bowery and Myrtle Beach remain near and dear to the hearts of each Alabama member. The multi-award-winning group actually returned to the waterfront location to shoot the video for the current “Dancin’ Shaggin’ On The Boulevard,” their follow-up to their latest No. 1 hit, “Sad Lookin’ Moon.”
“When we travel back there, it’s a feeling I can’t describe,” Randy explains. “Unless you’ve lived there and lived the music and the struggles that we have, you just don’t understand Myrtle Beach. You just don’t understand the dancing and the shagging on the boulevard. This music is Alabama’s journey through Myrtle Beach and all the clubs and smokey bars that we’ve played over the years, and places we still play today. It’s just all a part of our lives.”
“Both of my children were born in Myrtle Beach,” adds Teddy, “so there are a lot of good memories. And a big part of our lives is entwined in these new songs. There was just so much music, and different music, you couldn’t be there without being touched by all of it.”
Alabama was obviously touched by their early roots. Both the production and the song material from their new album is a definite reflection.
“It’s more back to what made the band Alabama, as far as the harmonies and things are concerned,” explains Jeff. “Because that’s just what we’ve always been credited with. You add to that songs that we really feel good about doing. I think we had the most freedom from a creative standpoint to choose what we wanted to cut and it be the way we wanted to cut it, than any other album we’ve ever cut, except maybe our first one.
“We went in with just our guitars and cut this music like we did with ’Mountain Music,’ ’Tennessee River,’ ’Feels So Right,’ ’Lady Down On Love’ and ’My Home’s In Alabama.’ That’s the way we cut this music. We cut it like we rehearsed it in our rehearsal room. We didn’t want it to sound smooth, slick and overproduced. Most of the vocals are just live vocals. They’re not overdubbed or anything like that. And the way Jeff, Teddy and I did the background vocals, we used one microphone.
“The Lennon Sisters used to do it (like that),” adds Teddy.
Much of Alabama’s recent resurgence as both singers and songwriters has been due to approaching their lives and music with the simplicity with which they started out. They credit their most recent songwriting to their decision to return to the traditional tour bus. When the band surprisingly sold their private plane just a couple of years ago, many saw it as a sign the band was slowing down. The decision actually resulted in the opposite and allowed them the time to unwind between shows and focus more on the creative aspects of their music. A majority of the songs featured on the new Dancin’ project were penned in the back of their tour bus.
While several of Alabama’s more recent career decisions have resulted in taking them back to the basics of their early career, one thing that has continued to move full speed ahead is their loyalty to their still-growing fan base. Once again, the success originated in both hometown Fort Payne and Myrtle Beach.
“I’d like to start with all the days like when me and Jeff used to take people’s addresses in Myrtle Beach and send them notes,” remembers Randy. “I mean that started the fan club. We’d write a letter to the radio stations and tell them (both radio djs and the fans) we were going to come. We’d say, ’If this is in your radius or whatever, come out and see us, We’re going to be there.’ The fans are just the most important thing in our lives,” he continues. “The fans are what made Alabama–the fans and those radio stations. Thankfully, the people in country radio haven’t forgotten about us and neither have the fans.”
In addition to visiting their museum, where literally thousands of awards, gifts from fans and special momentos are showcased, the Alabama fans also look forward to the group’s annual June Jam, held this year throughout the June 21st weekend. Besides being a phenomenal money-raising event for various Alabama area charities, the four-day festival serves as the group’s blow-out fan club party.
“On Thursday night we have a charity softball game for John Crowell’s Big Oak Ranches,” says Randy. “It’s for boys and girls who’ve been neglected or other things that might have happened to them.”
On the following Friday, the band hosts a celebrity golf tournament and a songwriters showcase in the evening. After Saturday’s traditional June Jam concert, Sunday is Fan Appreciation Day. “It’s out here on Lookout Mountain at my farm,” explains Randy. “This is a very special part of the whole weekend of June Jam. Only the fan club members come out. We all come out there and have a good time signing autographs and enjoying the fans.”
Good times, today, mean just as much for this long-time band-on-the-run, but the setting is again that of a more simple life. While they continue to feed a hectic tour schedule throughout the year, it’s these times at home–rehearsing in their practice hall up the road or taking in some fishing down at the cabin–that allows Alabama to keep in tune the most with each other.
“We all play different roles at different times,” reflects Teddy, ” (but) we’re all in this together. I think it’s best sometimes if you have blinders on, as far as the business goes, and to not get so caught up in the hype. We get to come home and basically forget about it. Then when we want to think about it again, we think about Alabama.”