Before Alabama, bands were usually relegated to a supporting role in country music. In the first part of the century, bands were popular with audiences across the country, but as recordings became available, nearly every popular recording artist was a vocalist, not a group. Alabama was the group that made country bands popular again. Emerging in the late ’70s, the band had roots in both country and rock; in fact, many of Alabama’s musical concepts, particularly the idea of a performing band, owed more to rock and pop than hardcore country. However, there is no denying that Alabama is a country band — the bandmembers’ pop instincts may come from rock, but their harmonies, songwriting, and approach are indebted to country, particularly the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard, bluegrass, and the sound of Nashville pop. A sleek, country-rock sound
made the group the most popular country group in history, selling more records than any other artist of the ’80s and earning stacks of awards.
First cousins Randy Owen (b. December 14, 1949; lead vocal, rhythm guitar) and Teddy Gentry (b. January 22, 1952; vocals, bass) form the core of Alabama. Owen and Gentry grew up on separate cotton farms on Lookout Mountain in Alabama, but the pair learned how to play guitar together; the duo also had sung in church together before they were six years old. On their own, Gentry and Owen played in a number of different bands during the ’60s, playing country, bluegrass, and pop on different occasions. During high school, the duo teamed with another cousin, Jeff Cook (b. August 27, 1949; lead guitar, vocals, keyboards, fiddle), to form Young Country in 1969. Before joining his cousins, Cook had played in a number of bands and was a rock & roll DJ. Young Country’s first gig was at a high-school talent contest; performing a Merle Haggard song, the band won first prize — a trip to the Grand Ole Opry. However, the group was fairly inactive as Owen and Cook went to college.
After Owen and Cook graduated from college, they moved with Gentry to Anniston, AL, with the intention of keeping the band together. Sharing an apartment, the band practiced at night and performed manual labor during the day. They changed their name to Wildcountry in 1972, adding drummer Bennet Vartanian to the lineup. The following year, they made the decision to become professional musicians, quitting their jobs and playing a number of bars in the Southeast. During this time, they began writing their own songs, including “My Home’s in Alabama.” Vartanian left soon after the band turned professional; after losing four more drummers, Rick Scott was added to the lineup in 1974.
Wildcountry changed its name to Alabama in 1977, the same year the band signed a one-record contract with GRT. The resulting single, “I Wanna Be With You Tonight,” was a minor success, peaking in the Top 80. Nevertheless, the single’s performance was an indication that Alabama was one of the most popular bands in the Southeast; at the end of the decade, the band was playing over 300 shows a year. After “I Wanna Be With You Tonight,” the group borrowed $4,000 from a Fort Payne bank, using the money to record and release its own records, which were sold at shows. When GRT declared bankruptcy a year after the release of “I Wanna Be With You Tonight,” the bandmembers discovered that they were forbidden from recording with another label because of a hidden clause in their contract. For two years, Alabama raised money to buy out its contract. In 1979, the group was finally able to begin recording again. That same year, Scott left the band. Scott was replaced by Mark Herndon, a former rock drummer who helped give Alabama its signature sound.
Later in 1979, Alabama self-recorded and released an album, hiring an independent record promoter to help get radio play for the single “I Wanna Come Over.” The band also sent hundreds of hand-written letters to program directors and DJs across the country. “I Wanna Come Over” gained the attention of MDJ Records, a small label based in Dallas. MDJ released the single, and it reached number 33 on the charts. In 1980, MDJ released “My Home’s in Alabama,” which made it into the Top 20. Based on the single’s success, Alabama performed at the Country Music New Faces show, where the band was spotted by an RCA Records talent scout, who signed the group after the show.
Alabama released its first RCA single, “Tennessee River,” late in 1980. Produced by Harold Shedd, the song began a remarkable streak of 21 number one hits (interrupted by the 1982 holiday single “Christmas in Dixie”), which ran until 1987; after one number seven hit, the streak resumed for another six singles, resulting in a total of 27 number one singles during the decade. Taken alone, the amount of chart-topping singles is proof of Alabama’s popularity, but the band also won numerous awards, had seven multi-platinum albums, and crossed over to the pop charts nine times during the ’80s.
In the ’90s, their popularity declined somewhat, yet they were still having hit singles and gold and platinum albums with regularity. Even after their dissolution in 2003, it’s unlikely that any other country group will be able to surpass the success of Alabama.
Biography by Stephen Thomas Erlewine