When Alabama concluded its exhausting farewell tour in 2003, lead singer Randy Owen had absolutely no aspiration to climb back into the spotlight. "It damn near killed me," he says of the experience.
Sometimes he suffered bouts of vertigo during the shows -- which typically ran three to three-and-a-half hours in order to do justice to the group's quarter century of hits.
For more than a year and a-half after Alabama took the exit ramp, Owen relaxed and let his body mend, venturing no farther back into music than writing an occasional song.
During this fallow period, he continued to voice his support for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. He had been involved in this close-to-the-heart charity since 1989, when he spoke at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville and implored broadcasters to come up with a nationwide scheme to raise funds for the facility.
And country radio stations did rise to the cause. The estimates are that they have now generated $340 million in contributions to St. Jude, always with Owen there to lead the campaign.
But as Alabama receded in radio's memory, Owen discovered that his personal calls to stations on St. Jude's behalf weren't eliciting the eagerness to cooperate they once did.
"I talked to Dale Morris, my manager, about it," the 59-year-old Owen explains. "I told him I had great concern because it seemed like when I called radio stations or talked to people about St. Jude, I maybe wasn't as effective as I had been when [we had] No. 1 records or new records playing on radio."
Perhaps it was time to raise his music visibility, he thought.
"I realized that I'd put almost 20 years of my life into helping the kids at St. Jude," Owen says, "but I hadn't done anything in almost eight years in the [recording] studio to sing a new song for country radio."
Morris suggested that Owen get together with singer-songwriter-producer John Rich of Big & Rich (another of Morris' clients) to see what they could come up with. Out of this artistic pairing has grown Owen's first solo album, One on One. Rich produced and co-wrote three songs for it. Owen wrote or co-wrote seven.
Also gracing the album is a song Dolly Parton penned and another by the ubiquitous Morris, who, among other services, negotiated Owen's solo deal with Broken Bow Records.
"There's a tremendous amount of excitement," Owen says of his return. "I get to do new music. ... What's more exciting to me -- over writing and anything else -- is to be able to go out and do the new songs, just with my acoustic guitar, like I've done several times, and see the response. If [the label gives] me a shot, it's going to be a very successful thing, because the people love the songs."
Owen's solo shows have been for small audiences, such as those he performs when he visits radio stations. He has also assembled a full band to tour with him, and he says he's looking forward to doing as many dates as his agent can book.
Fans will rejoice, no doubt, in the fact that Owen's voice is as rich and resonant as ever and that he still has affection for sensitive lyrics. A case in point is Parton's impassioned "Holding Everything," which he sings with Megan Mullins, who's now a member of his band and a Broken Bow labelmate.
Owen first heard of "Holding Everything" in one of those roundabout ways that are so common in Nashville's close-knit music community. The woman who cuts his hair also works with Parton. She had heard Parton working on the song and thought it would be ideal for Owen. With Parton's permission, the hair stylist took him a copy of the song just as he was finishing his judging duties on the Nashville Star TV series in 2007.
Perhaps even more surprising to Owen was that his longtime manager was a songwriter. But he says he loved the sinuous "Slow and Steady" the moment Morris sang it for him.
"I had no idea he wrote it," Owen says. "It was a very emotional moment for me and him, too. I've been knowing Dale for 28 years and never realized something like this would happen."
"Braid My Hair," the lead single from One on One and a song that expresses the dreams of many of the girl cancer patients at St. Jude, came to Owen through his mother. "I go to see her every day when I'm home to see if she's OK," he explains.
On one of his visits, his mother gave him a CD copy of a song to listen to. It was a demo of "Braid My Hair" that its two writers, Christopher Gray and Brent Wilson, had sent to Mrs. Owen after they had failed in all their other attempts to get it to her son.
"I asked her if she'd listened to it," Owen notes. "She said, 'Yes, I have. I really like this song.'" Concurring with her opinion, Owen called the song's writers. He told them how moved he was by it but explained he had no immediate prospects for recording it.
When Owen finally returned to the studio, he discovered that the song was still up for grabs. So he recorded it. The delighted (and persistent) writers are donating all their publishing royalties from the song to St. Jude.
In 2005, the members of Alabama were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an achievement Owen admits he aspired to for years. Recalling he was in Tyler, Texas, when Morris phoned him about Alabama's selection, Owen says, "I told him to please not tell anybody, that I was flying right back to Alabama.
"I called all the other guys and asked if they could have breakfast with me. I couldn't believe it, but they could. So we ate at a Cracker Barrel. When we finally got through, they asked me what was going on. And I said, 'I always wondered what it would be like to have breakfast with the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.' It was a wonderful moment."
As his new album finds its legs, Owen has also been promoting his recently-published memoir, Born Country: How Faith, Family, and Music Brought Me Home. It all seems a long way removed from the idea of retirement Owen embraced not so long ago.
"I'm grateful for the old and grateful for the new," he says with magisterial satisfaction.
Read an excerpt from Randy Owen's Born Country: How Faith, Family, and Music Brought Me Home.