MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Alabama guitarist Jeff Cook can describe the Bowery in two words -- "redneck heaven."
Photo Credit: Craig Shelburne
That just about sums it up, except there's so much more to the Bowery than meets the eye. A small bar nestled between the ocean and the main drag through Myrtle Beach, S.C., the Bowery seems an unlikely launching ground for one of the most successful bands of all time. The only alcohol served is a mug of an unnamed draft beer for $2.25. Live bands play every night, but there's no dance floor.
"It's a very relaxed atmosphere," Cook says. "They don't care what you wear. It's just a good-time place. It's a place where you can get away from the everyday grind, and in our case, it gave us a chance to make our music. We met a lot of fans there who are still fans of ours today."
"I think it's probably the most unique place that I've ever seen," says Alabama lead vocalist Randy Owen. "That's the big thing. It's such a unique blend of people that would come there as fans, to drink and party. One night you might have a place full of college kids, the next night you might have steel workers. You had to be able to work for tips, and you had to be able to change songs to fit the crowd or it got really rowdy."
Back then, the guys in Alabama would make jokes with the audience and play each other's guitars behind their backs. Since it was billed as continuous entertainment, they only took bathroom breaks when friends would get up and sing or tell jokes. For a dollar, you'd hear your request eventually. For five dollars, it would be the next song. And for $10 or more, they'd stop whatever they were in the middle of, and start playing yours. Cook says one woman drunkenly tipped the band with three $100 bills to hear "Roomful of Roses" three different times.
"Nobody knew the song but me, so I said, 'Grab an F [chord], boys. Let's go!'," he recalls, laughing.
When they started playing summers at the Bowery in 1973, Cook, Teddy Gentry, Owen and a succession of drummers were billed as Wildcountry. The bar had signs displayed for all 50 states, and when the guys instituted the Alabama sign as their stage backdrop, the name stuck. Drummer Mark Herndon completed the lineup in 1979, and the band was still gigging at the Bowery when "Tennessee River" -- the first of 32 No. 1 hits for the band -- debuted in 1980.
Later that year, the Bowery was purchased by 22-year-old Victor Shamah, a friend of the band who worked as their tour manager in the off-season. A native of Myrtle Beach, Shamah and his father had both owned stores on the strip. He's quick to tell you that the constant change of people is what keeps him invested in his job, and simply put, that the Bowery is there to entertain the people.
"If we can't entertain the people, then they get up and walk to the beach," he says. "We're in the tourist area, where people just drop in off the street, and once they drop in off the street, it's up to the band to keep them there. What the Bowery did for Alabama was, it was a breeding ground to learn how to entertain the people and talk to the people on a one-on-one basis. There are no other clubs in the area, and I would say there are a few in the country, that cater to a small crowd where there's not much of a dance floor at all, but there's a one-on-one relationship with the band."
If Alabama ever got a break at the Bowery, it was at 10 p.m. when the can-can girls hit the stage. One of them, named April, weighed 330 pounds. A bartender would lift her in the air, where she'd attach herself to trapeze cables and dance on the ceiling. Then she'd fall back into the bartender's arms and gracefully return to the stage. By the way, Shamah says the bartender who caught her still holds the world record for carrying the most steins of beer without a tray -- 34, full. A slightly creepy wax figure from Ripley's museum lurks behind the bar to back up his claim. April's costume is encased in glass.
Still, that's not why the Bowery is famous.
"When we went to Myrtle Beach, what was so unique about us going there was that we were the only Southern rock, country rock-flavored group there was on the beach," Owen says. "We were different, and it was very discouraging the first couple of years. It really was, because things just weren't going well as far as people coming to see you play. Then things started going crazy for a couple of years, then it got really wild, and then it got even wilder."
The Bowery is now open on Sundays, due to a change in local liquor law. Shamah also acquired Duffy's, the bar and grill next door, to showcase his Alabama memorabilia and to accommodate the drinkers who aren't interested in mystery beer. A few steps from the bars' front doors, the beloved and nostalgic Myrtle Beach Pavilion theme park has been razed, and whatever replaces it will probably be a year-round attraction. Yet, as Myrtle Beach gets more modern, with its multiple high-rise condos, Shamah is not concerned about the old-fashioned Bowery.
"As a matter of fact, it gives us a better view," he says about the removal of the Pavilion. "Before, we were on a side street leading to the ocean, between the main drag and the ocean. Now we're on a front street leading to the ocean and the Bowery's exposure is there. It's God's way of giving us free advertisement. If they leave it down long enough, we'll be good, but we hope that whatever they build there will help us, not hurt us. We were there before the Pavilion and we'll be there after."
View photos of the Bowery in Myrtle Beach, S.C.