20 Questions With Alabama’s Randy Owen

He Talks Politics, Poetry and Paying Dues

Alabama may not be on tour anymore, but the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame are still in the spotlight. The band has collected three discs worth of hits, live cuts and previously unreleased songs for the new boxed set, Livin’, Lovin’, Rockin’, Rollin’: The 25th Anniversary Collection. Taking questions from country fans, lead singer Randy Owen discusses his tumultuous teen years in Fort Payne, Ala., his lifelong career in the cattle business and the one song that could always break up a barroom fight.

1. What inspired you to record the song, “Roll On”?

I thought it was a hit. We’d been looking for a truck-driving song, but just not [any] truck-driving song. When Dave Loggins told me he wrote the perfect truck-driving song … (laughs) No, he didn’t say that. He thought he had something I’d like. I listened to it and listened to the words. Man, it’s an awesome song. It talked about mom, it talked about the kids, it talked about working, it talked about driving, it talked about God. You got it all. It’s a country song. It’s a classic, in my opinion, as far as the song they wrote.

We were excited about that song. We formed our own live version of that and played it a few times, and people really liked it, so we couldn’t wait to get into the studio to record “Roll On.” That’s a real CB radio. That’s a real bus driver — one of our bus drivers that’s doing the “roll on!” That’s the real bus motor because we made sure we recorded the real bus that we were on, the real CB radio we listened to as people were going down the road. They’d say, “Hey, when are you guys going to cut a truck-driving song?” We tried to make it as authentic as we could. It cost us a lot of money, but at that time, it was all about making records and making music. Still is, today.

2. What do you think is the difference between the first session when you recorded for RCA, and what it takes to record a song now?

They were done a lot quicker because they were salivating, waiting for that next record to come out. “Can you guys hurry up? We don’t care if it’s seven songs, nine songs, whatever you can get. Get it done.” Because we were relentlessly touring. “Get in here and do them.”

3. What do you remember about recording “Mountain Music”?

We did “Mountain Music” in two cuts. Back when we had a chance to rehearse and arrange stuff, we just went in and did the song like we’d rehearsed it. We went in the studio and recorded it — bam. Kind of like we did “Christmas in Dixie.” We rehearsed that, cut it a couple of times, and that’s the way we left it.

4. At your farewell tour stop in Roanoke, Va., you said Alabama was working on a gospel CD. Any more info?

I said that? Well, I don’t really think that I said that, but I could have. Maybe they said something like, “When are you guys going to do a gospel album?” and I said, “Well, we’re working on that,” or something. I know that we’d like to do that. I feel like there’s a whole world of opportunity out there for us to do, and we love gospel music. But we’re not working on one.

5. Will you guys ever perform at the Alabama Theater in Myrtle Beach again?

That’s a possibility. I mean, we love the Grand Strand. That’s a possibility.

6. You’ve helped me through seven years in prison, and I can identify every song on the very first note. I’ve waited several years to be able to go to the June Jam just to see you. Now that I can, will you ever do another one?

We talked about the June Jam. But the insurance costs of putting the stage up like that and the labor cost, especially, prohibits you from doing that. … I personally would love to do another June Jam. In fact, I’d love to have an annual event. But if you do it under the title of Alabama, the other guys just aren’t ready to do something like that.

7. I have been so concerned for your health this last year. How are you feeling now?

(laughs) You say, “How do I feel now?” I feel like hell. (laughs) I’ve had my first chest cold in 25 years, so … I think what they’re referring to is this vertigo stuff. That’s still something I deal with. I’ve been from California from Alabama, and there are a lot of things I’ve tried. I have good days and I have bad days, but I’ve learned to the point where unless I have one of those all-out attacks, when you have no control of what’s going on, I’ve learned how to live with it.

8. What is the hardest thing you had to adjust to when you left the road?

I don’t remember adjusting to anything. I’d say the easiest thing to adjust to is not having to get on a bus or get on an airplane. Talking to people and not saving your voice for the show that night, it’s been really easy to adjust to that. I get out to see people now, I talk to them. I enjoy it, have a few drinks, eat with them, enjoy a smile and a laugh. Have a good time. When we were touring all the time, we played that number of hours, it was total focus on the show.

9. Was there ever a time in the past two decades that you wanted to get off the road?

In 1994, I wanted to take a year off. I just couldn’t understand why you can’t take a year off. It’s a short period of time. But it’s really hard for the other guys and the people involved to understand the load that’s on my shoulders. I know everybody thinks they’re tired, and everybody feels tired, but when you’re on stage, singing all the songs and you’re the one … The crowds don’t know if anything else is messed up, but if you don’t know what you’re singing and your voice is no good, they notice that. It’s a huge amount of pressure all the time, and I thought I needed at least a year off. That’s what I told everybody after the Farewell tour. It’s only been a little bit over a year since I was in full armor in October 2004 for our last show.

10. On tour, how hard is it to stay in shape vocally?

It’s an incredible challenge to stay physically fit to the point where you can sing for three hours or three and a-half hours and be good. That’s really a challenge. The thing I’ve said, too, about Alabama’s music is that we don’t just sing ballads. There’s such a huge variety of notes and a huge variety of mood swings that goes on. It’s a very neat concert for fans, but it’s a very, very difficult thing for the vocalist. You don’t want to do all your ballads together, and you don’t want to do all your up-tempo stuff together. You want to make it a show, but on the other hand, the stress that’s on the vocal is really demanding.

11. I read about you endorsing and having a fundraiser for a local political candidate. Have you ever considered running for public office?

I have always had really strong feelings about endorsing any political candidate on the stage. … I care very deeply about our state and our county and our country, as well, but I feel like there are independents, Democrats and Republicans — everybody — that like our music. That music means something to all of those people.

I feel like unless you’re going to run for office, you really should keep your mouth shut on stage about the political climate. Now, off the stage, off the Alabama stage in our home state, obviously my wife and I do a lot of stuff that helps candidates. … Yes, I have been asked, and my wife has been asked, several times to run for office in the state of Alabama — on the national level and the state level. But we feel like we do more good helping candidates. I feel like I’ve given enough of myself — through my music and my charities.

12. With all of the reality shows today such as American Idol, do you think these new artists are missing out on anything? Or will they take their careers for granted since not having had “paid their dues”?

Oh, yeah. It’s kind of like listening to an artist when I can hear it in their voice. I can tell if they’ve got the grit. I can tell if they’ve got the soul. I can tell if they’ve got the hurt. I can tell if they’ve got those paid-dues kind of tone in their voice. And when I see them perform, I can tell. I don’t think it. I know they’re missing out on a lot.

That could be good for them if they’ve missed out on it because they haven’t had to do the sacrifice. Or it could be bad, for helping them sustain when they have a little adversity in their life or things don’t go exactly right. Whereas the person who has been in that tough barroom or that tough college crowd or a bunch of coal miners in West Virginia, if you’ve never experienced that, then you don’t know how to react. When was the last time you saw a fight on a TV show? (laughs)

But I’ve played in places where I didn’t see one fight or where I saw 10 serious fights. One of the great tricks that we learned was to play “Rocky Top.” We just played “Rocky Top” until they quit fighting. Fights go much better when they’ve got music to go by. They quit fighting sooner. Absolutely, because we were making more noise than they were. The cussing, the insults, they can’t hear one another.

13. Randy, you are a true example of a “rags to riches” story through hard work and perseverance. Have you ever thought about being a motivational speaker?

I pretty much think that’s what I am. I actually have done a few things like that for charity that I don’t advertise. I encourage people to stay in school. I’m a high school dropout. I went through all the humiliation of going back to school and being the oldest kid in my class. Graduating from high school, I thought, “If I can do this, I’m going to go to college.” So I went to college and got my degree. Thank goodness for the junior college program that George Wallace set up for the state of Alabama. I got a chance to go to junior college for $67.50 a quarter, and the school bus was furnished so I could get on the school bus and go to college for two years.

I’m very grateful that a red-headed lady named Mary Alice took it upon herself to look back on my grades in grammar school. She’s like, “Randy, you made great grades. Why didn’t you go to high school?” So she kept encouraging me. I went down to the high school, and the principal said, “We don’t want you down here.” So I came back and told her. … She had red hair, and her face got really red, and she started smoking that Winston cigarette. Then she laid it down and said, “Let me call him.” (laughs)

So she called the principal at Fort Payne High School. The deal was, I was going to start the second half of the ninth grade. And he said, “Nobody can do that, especially you.” She said, “You can do it, can’t you, Randy?” And I said, “I think I can.” So I don’t know if she threatened to kill him. (laughs).

14. What do you remember about your high school years in Fort Payne?

I was a tough guy. I was mean, and I was just hoping somebody would say something that I didn’t like so it would give me a good opportunity to whack them. I walk into the class and there’s this big boy who’s holding this little bitty kid out the window with his ankles.

So I went up to this guy and said, “Pull him back in.” And this was the first day of high school. And he was like, “Who are you?” And I said, “I’m the guy who’s going to whip your ass if you don’t pull him in here.” He said, “That’s going to be hard for you to do.” And I said, “I think maybe a couple of licks would be the end of you.” So anyway, he pulled this kid back in, and no punches — thank goodness. I never would have gotten into school again. So he pulled him back in, and everywhere I went, that little kid went with me. (laughs)

15. Growing up, who were some of your favorite teachers?

I ran into a couple of ladies who shaped my life, as far as going to school, and encouraged me every day. Miss Hawkins, Miss Landstreet and Miss Bittle. Everywhere I went, I was “Mr. Owen” to them because I made great grades. … I’ll never forget the first test took, I made a 99 and a-half on the test. So I was sitting in my seat and my hands — I had been picking cotton and I had this dirty cotton dust my hands. You can’t wash it off. It’s just there. She looks at me and says, “Mr. Owen, where have you been going to school?” I was like, “Ugh, I’ve got to tell her.” I said, “I haven’t been going to school.” The rest of the class all laughed. She was like, “A-ha. Well, I’m going to let you come up to the board, and you’re going to do this test on the board.” So I had to do the whole test on the board, and luckily here again for me, I did it all. Then she proceeded to chew out the class: “This guy hasn’t been going to school, and all you turkeys failed the test!” Boy, when I walked out, I got everybody mad at me.

The neat thing was, the classes got too big in a matter of two or three months. So I had a new teacher. She told Mrs. Landstreet, “If you have problems with some of the stuff you don’t understand, you can ask Mr. Owen. He knows more about this than you.” Anyway, teachers. What a great impact they can make — or can’t make.

16. If fans travel through Fort Payne, what are the chances in running into you?

Very good. Well, I hope not “running into me.” Seeing me. (laughs) One of the things that has changed is that we’re wet [legalized alcohol sales]. The city of Fort Payne went wet, which is historical. I saw in USA Today that a gentleman there has deeded 69 acres of his land to an Indian tribe that was originally there. So, probably casinos are in the works. That would be a big change. All of my lifetime and my mother’s lifetime, Fort Payne has never been wet. But for most people from outside there, it would be normal.

17. How did you get started in your cattle business?

I’ve been in the cattle business all my life. I didn’t get in the cattle business. I was born in the cattle business. Hog business, chicken business, farming business. I grew up with my parents picking cotton. We had pigs, chickens, cows, dogs, sheep, goats, mules, horses. The only difference is, when I got a little successful in the country music business, I wanted to raise registered Hereford cattle. Then a few years later, I got some registered Angus cattle. Here again, you can’t seem to ever get this straight to people, but I didn’t decide. … The only thing I ever changed was the fact that I bought some registered cattle.

I’m also very knowledgeable about the cattle business. I keep up with it, and I have all my life. It’s not like I’m some guy that just decided to have cows. I make all the decisions about what goes on at my farm. I spend a little more time with the cattle business than I did, but there’s a period of time — like right now — I’ve been gone for seven or eight days. I don’t know what’s going on there. It’s not like I call in when I’m doing something so important. When it’s St. Jude weekend [the radiothon supporting the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital], I don’t call in and say, “What’s going on with the cows?” I feel like I’m doing something more important. Today, I feel like this interview is more important than the cows.

But I do have a deep knowledge of the cattle business and the industry worldwide. That was given to me by my father and my two grandfathers. My Paw-Paw Owen always had cattle and mules. My grandfather, Henry B. Teague Sr., had cattle, horses, a beautiful farm. He could pick more cotton than anybody I’ve ever seen, to this day. Of course, nobody picks it anymore. He picked a double row. When I hear that song by Merle Haggard (“Tulare Dust”) about “Seeing Mom and Dad/Both of them taking a double row,” I know what a double row is.

18. Who is one person that you would like to meet, famous or not?

(very long pause) I would like to meet the poet Edgar A. Guest, if that would be possible. He was such an influence on my father and on me, as far as poetry that I read and the poetry that I like. Every poem that he wrote was like a really neat country song without music, except it had its own rhythm to it. His works are still out there, and I think I have them all. I would have wondered what he was really like to talk to. He’s the greatest poet ever by a long shot. My daddy used to read his poetry to us out loud and then he’d read the Bible. We didn’t have a TV or a radio, so that was our entertainment, besides him playing the guitar and mama playing the piano. We loved it.

19. With all the work that Alabama has done with St. Jude’s over the years, what is the greatest thing you have learned from those experiences?

Well, that’s really not a good question. I work with St. Jude and the other guys don’t do that. That’s just something I started doing, and I like my independence to do and say what I want to say. I think it’s important and people need to know that. It’s tough on the other guys when they get asked about it, because they don’t know anything about it. They know I do stuff with St. Jude, but they don’t know so many of the things that I know. I think it’s important that the fans understand that St. Jude is totally something that I do and that I’ve done for all these years.

The question was, “What’s the most important thing?” To emphasize the word “we” and not “I,” as far as that relates to country radio, country songwriters and country entertainers, publishers, promoters, record companies. When I started this, it was almost “I,” but two or three really wonderful people in country radio started helping us. … Some of these men and women started coming up with ideas on how to do a radiothon. Sure, I asked for the help, but I didn’t know how to do it. They came up with the idea on how to do it. It’s just the most incredible story. I emphasize the word “we” — all of us together. The fact is that country music fans are the greatest, most loyal, warm-hearted people in the world. Then you throw in the cause, which is the most wonderful cause that I know of in the world. It all makes a great combination.

20. What was your reaction when you found out that you were going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame?

I cried. Tears of joy. I had hoped for that day for at least 20 years. I think anybody, no matter what profession you’re in, if there is a Hall of Fame, then that’s your ultimate goal. You want to be the best, and you want to stand alongside the best that’s ever been. Just soak it up and be thankful.

When I found out, I asked them, “Would you please not tell the other guys?” I wanted just one day because I had something in mind. So I called them and asked them if they could meet me for breakfast. One of the neatest moments in my whole life — especially in my professional life, if not the neatest moment. As fate would have it, they all could meet me. We were just talking, telling dirty jokes, laughing and everything. So I looked at them, like I was getting ready to leave, and said, “Well, I’d always wondered what it would be like to have breakfast with the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.” And then they had a few words I can’t repeat — but it was good stuff, not bad stuff. They were really excited. It was something.

Only they know the struggle and only they know those moments, good and bad. Only they know the difficulties and the huge obstacles and the huge hurdles we jumped and stumbled over to get recognized. It’s really special. … Nothing will substitute for that moment.