The lineup that Alabama held for most of its career. Left to right: Mark Herndon, Jeff Cook, Randy Owen, and Teddy Gentry.
|Also known as||Young Country
|Origin||Fort Payne, Alabama, United States|
|Genres||Country, southern rock, country rock, soft rock, bluegrass|
|Labels||GRT, MDJ, RCA Nashville|
|Associated acts||Charlie Daniels Band, Exile, Jimmy Buffett, Marshall Tucker Band, Eagles, Hank Williams, Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bellamy Brothers, Restless Heart, BlackHawk, Merle Haggard, The Outlaws, Toby Keith, Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Earl Thomas Conley, Clint Black|
|Past members||Mark Herndon
Alabama is an American country, southern rock and bluegrass band formed in Fort Payne, Alabama in 1969. The band was founded by Randy Owen (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and his cousin Teddy Gentry (bass guitar, background vocals), soon joined by their other cousin, Jeff Cook (lead guitar, fiddle, keyboards). First operating under the name Wildcountry, the group toured the Southeast bar circuit in the early 1970s, and began writing original songs. They changed their name to Alabama in 1977 and following the chart success of two singles, were approached by RCA Nashville for a record deal.
Alabama's biggest success came in the 1980s, where the band had over 27 number one hits, seven multi-platinum albums and received numerous awards. Alabama's first single on RCA Nashville, "Tennessee River", began a streak of number one singles, including "Love in the First Degree" (1981), "Mountain Music" (1982), "Dixieland Delight" (1983), "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)" (1984) and "Song of the South" (1987). The group's popularity waned slightly in the 1990s, although they continued to receive hit singles and multi-platinum record sales. The group disbanded in 2006 following a farewell tour and two albums of inspirational music, but reunited in 2011 and have continued to record and tour worldwide.
The band's blend of traditional country music and southern rock combined with elements of gospel music, and pop music gave it a crossover appeal that helped lead to their unprecedented success. They also toured extensively and incorporated production elements such as lighting and "sets" inspired by rock concerts into their shows. The band has over 30 number one country records on the Billboard charts to their credit and have sold over 75 million albums and singles, making them one of the world's best-selling bands of all time. Allmusic credited the band with popularizing the idea of a country band, and wrote that "it's unlikely that any other country group will be able to surpass the success of Alabama."
Alabama was formed by guitarists Randy Owen and Jeff Cook, and bassist Teddy Gentry, three cousins born and raised near Fort Payne, Alabama, an area with strong country music roots. Owen and Gentry grew up on separate cotton farms on Lookout Mountain, learning guitar together and singing in church before the age of six. Gentry and Owen played in numerous groups during the 1960s, ranging from pop to bluegrass. Cook joined the band in 1969, and the newly christened Young Country first jammed together around Christmas 1969. Cook also played in numerous bands and was a rock and roll DJ. The three cousins all shared vocal duties, with another cousin, drummer Jackie Owen, rounding out the group's first lineup. The band's first performance was at a high school talent contest (playing a Merle Haggard song), for which they won first prize and tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. Despite this, all were busy with prior commitments to pursue music: Owen still in high school, Cook working for Western Electric, and Gentry laying carpets full-time. The band grew further inactive when Owen and Cook went to college.
The group first became a band in earnest in 1972, adding drummer Bennett Vartanian and changing their name to Wildcountry. During this time, the group accepted a position playing at the nearby Canyonland theme park. The park would bring in established stars, such as Jerry Wallace, Bobby Bare, and Narvel Felts, and the band would back them, afterwards performing a one-hour dance set. After a while, with opportunities for the band slim, a discouraged Cook took a government job in Anniston, Alabama. Owen was studying English at Jacksonville State University, Cook had an electronics job, and Gentry was a carpet-layer. The trio shared at $56-a-month apartment in Anniston, working to keep the band afloat with night and weekend gigs. The quintet decided to become professional musicians in 1973, and began performing at bars throughout the Southeast. In March 1973, the band relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, performing six nights a week at a club named The Bowery for tips. They made their best money performing cover songs of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Merle Haggard. Unable to secure a record contract, Wildcountry began entering the studio on their own and recording. The group borrowed $4,000 from a Fort Payne bank to record and release their own albums to sell at shows. Vartanian dropped out of the group, and following a rotation of four more drummers, they settled on Rick Scott in 1974.
Demo tapes sent to record companies received few responses until executives at GRT Records signed the band to a one-record contract, issuing their debut single, "I Want to Be with You", in 1977. GRT was more interested in the band as songwriters, and convinced the group to change their name to the Alabama Band, later shortened to Alabama. The song did not receive chart success, and GRT declared bankruptcy the following year. Due to a hidden clause in their contract, Alabama was forbidden from recording with another label. For the next two years, the band raised money to buy out their contract, and they began recording again in 1979. The self-recorded and released Alabama Band No. 3 became the band's third album, and the band performed over 300 shows on the road that year. The group hired independent radio promoters to receive radio play for the single "I Wanna Come Over", and they sent hand-written letters to program directors and DJs nationwide. It received the attention of Dallas-based MDJ Records, who signed the band. Scott left the group at this time, and was replaced by Mark Herndon, a rock drummer later credited with bringing the band their signature sound. "I Wanna Come Over", became their first radio hit, charting within the top 40 of the country charts.
The group's next single, "My Home's in Alabama", received an even better response, reaching the top 20. Their early chart successes led to an invitation to appear at the "New Faces" show at Nashville's annual Country Radio Seminar, along with other up-and-comers, such as Reba McEntire. The band had to perform with studio musicians, rather than as a band, and left the session believing they had destroyed their chances. Despite this, the group drew interest from several labels, among those RCA Nashville, with whom they signed in April 1980. Their first single on RCA, "Tennessee River", was produced by Harold Shedd and was their first to hit number one, beginning a streak of over 30 number one hits. Cashbox named the band the New Vocal Group of the Year, marking the band's first award. In July 1980, the band left their long-time gig at the Bowery, promoting their single, which they initially believed to be fluke. The success took the band by surprise, and soon became "all but consuming."
Alabama enjoyed a great deal of creative freedom at RCA; they followed up "Tennessee River" with "Why Lady Why", despite the objections of executives and trade publications, The song became their second number one on the Hot Country Singles chart. They toured extensively, headlining small clubs and opening for bigger acts in major venues. In addition, the group also received television exposure on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show. In February 1981, Alabama released its second major label album, Feels So Right; it peaked at number 16 on the Billboard 200 and stayed for more than three years, longer than any other Alabama album. "Old Flame" was their next number one in February 1981, followed by "Feels So Right" in May, and "Love in the First Degree" that October. That year, Alabama received a great deal of industry attention: Billboard named them New Group for the Year, Radio & Records called them Group of the Year, and the Academy of Country Music deemed the band the Vocal Group of the Year. The quintet performed on the 1981 Country Music Association Awards, where it received both Instrumental Group of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year. Although the band received unprecedented success, Owen's personal life was "falling apart": his father died while he was on the road, affecting him greatly.
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Mountain Music, released in February 1982, is considered Alabama's last studio album before they encountered superstardom, and their final release before a significant upgrade in production and sound. All three of the album's singles reached number one: "Mountain Music" in May 1982, followed two months later by "Take Me Down" that July, and "Close Enough to Perfect" in October. That year, both Mountain Music and Feels So Right would go quadruple platinum; by late 1982, the band had sold over six million albums, despite just two years on the national circuit. "Christmas in Dixie", a holiday song released in 1982, charted on two of Billboard magazine's music popularity charts in six different calendar years. Alabama became the first group to win CMA's prestigious Entertainer of the Year award, which they collected three years in a row, from 1982 to 1984. The group received two consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, for Mountain Music and their next album, The Closer You Get ....
The Closer You Get..., released in March 1983, was certified platinum within two months. Each of the album's singles—"Dixieland Delight", "The Closer You Get", and "Lady Down on Love"—were number ones in both the U.S. and Canada. Roll On was Alabama's next LP, and its four singles, "Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)", "When We Make Love", "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)", "(There's A) Fire in the Night", all went to the top in both countries. 40-Hour Week (1985) continued the band's string of multinational successes, with "40 Hour Week (For a Livin')" and "Can't Keep a Good Man Down" peaking at number one in both territories, with only the lead single, "There's No Way", falling short in Canada (although it peaked at number two). 40-Hour Week was one of Alabama's most popular albums, crossing over in the pop album charts. Alabama Christmas, a collection of nine holiday songs plus "Christmas in Dixie", became Alabama's debut on the compact disc that September; it was also the centerpiece of a retail and television promotion (sponsored by the Nashville Network).
RCA issued an Alabama Greatest Hits compilation in January 1986, which sold wildly, making the band the most successful country act of the 1980s. The Touch followed in September 1986, and although considered one of the weakest in the band's catalogue, it did have two number one hits: ""You've Got" the Touch" and "Touch Me When We're Dancing". Their next record, Just Us, received a similar critical response, but produced two number ones: "Face to Face" and "Fallin' Again".
By the late 1980s, Alabama's sales slowed down considerably, with only their major albums going gold. Alabama's popularity was mostly eclipsed by more traditional-sounding artists such as Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, George Strait, and Dwight Yoakam. Despite this, they continued to be a popular touring act, and the band issued their first live album, Alabama Live, in 1988. For 1989's Southern Star, the band decided to part ways with longtime producer Harold Shedd, opting for half produced by Josh Leo and Larry Lee, and the other half with Barry Beckett. "Song of the South" was another number one, and the album's remaining singles—"If I Had You", "High Cotton", and "Southern Star"—were number ones in both the U.S. and Canada. That year, Alabama were named by Billboard the Country Artist of the 1980s and the Academy of Country Music voted the band the Artist of the Decade.
Although their popularity continued to decline during the 1990s, they still received gold and platinum albums with regularity. In addition, their singles continued to find outstanding chart success. The 1990 album Pass It on Down created three number one singles: "Jukebox in My Mind", "Forever's as Far as I'll Go", and "Down Home". According to Allmusic, by the time the band released 1992's American Pride, "they were among the genre's aging veterans." Richard Carlin of Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary, opined that the group's harmonies sounded dated to the new audience. "I'm in a Hurry (And Don't Know Why)" became the record's biggest hit, reaching number one; the album's other singles still fared very well, with "Take a Little Trip", "Once Upon a Lifetime", and"Hometown Honeymoon" peaking within the top three. Cheap Seats followed in 1993, with "Reckless" becoming Alabama's final number one, although most of the band's singles afterward peaked within the top ten. The band's 1995 album, In Pictures, represented their eighteenth gold album, more than the total for any other country act to that point. In 1996, the group remained finalists in the Vocal Group of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. In 1997, the band released Dancin' on the Boulevard, exploring R&B and beach music. Singles "Sad Lookin' Moon" and "Dancin', Shaggin' on the Boulevard" were top five hits in the U.S. and Canada. In 1998, the band released For the Record, a two-disc greatest hits compilation that contained two new singles — "How Do You Fall in Love" and "Keepin' Up" — were hits on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, peaking at number two and fourteen, respectively.
For their fifteenth studio release, Twentieth Century (1999), the band recorded a cover of "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You" by the boy band 'N Sync in 1999, in a move that was considered an attempt to "stay relevant." The single nonetheless hit number one in Canada, number three on the US country charts, and number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, representing their highest peak in 17 years. When It All Goes South (2001) was Alabama's next release. "If I never did another CD, this is the one I will always point to as the one that I was happy with the most," said Owen at the time of its release. Despite this, the album's singles did not fare well in comparison to past successes, with only the title track becoming a top 15 hit, representing the band's last career peak.
Alabama announced the American Farewell tour in May 2002 at the CMAs, encompassing 40 tour dates, sponsorships, special events, and a TV special. Owen spoke then on the decision to part ways: "When you get down to it, there are many, many factors involved — some of them very personal. It's really about the integrity of the group, the dignity of the group." Owen later admitted the group was exhausted after twenty years of nonstop touring and recording, and "everybody needed some time." The tour collected $15 million in box office before it even began, and Alabama performed to packed arenas from June to November 2003. Due to "extraordinary fan response and overwhelming ticket demand," the tour was extended for an additional 30 shows, running between February and June 2004. The group performed their "final" show in October 2004 in Bismark, North Dakota. In the ensuing years, Owen stayed active as a solo act, Cook with his Allstar Goodtime Band and Gentry as a producer and with his band Rockit City.
Herndon and the other members of Alabama had had their relationship strained over the years. While he was present in each press photo and a photo of him once hung at Alabama's fan club and museum, Owen contended that he was never an official member of the group. He claimed his inclusion in photos was the label's idea, and that Herndon was a paid employee of the band, rather than a member. In May 2008, the other members of the group sued drummer Mark Herndon for $202,670 in money allegedly overpaid to him three years earlier after the band's farewell tour concluded. This money was allegedly factored into the net profit and given to Herndon before accounting was completed, an allegation Herndon has denied. The band did not sue Herndon until he requested money from the multiple live albums and songs that the band had released but never paid Herndon for playing on. By filing the lawsuit, Alabama band attorneys mistakenly included copies of band contracts as exhibits along with their lawsuit papers, thus allowing fans a chance to look at the inner workings of the band and revealing that Herndon actually had a contractual full band share of the farewell tour.
Owen was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 (he was later given a clean bill of health), which led to the band's reunion, sans Herndon. Following a devastating series of tornados destroying homes and businesses throughout their state in 2011, Alabama assembled a benefit concert in Birmingham, called Bama Rising. Featuring the band's first set since 2004, alongside artists Luke Bryan, Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley, the concert raised $2.1 million. "I guess we realized that maybe we missed the playing ... and five or six years had gone by and we were like, 'Maybe that wasn't as bad as we remember it being,'" said Gentry. In celebration of the group's 40th anniversary, Alabama resumed touring in 2013 for the Back to the Bowery tour, referencing the Myrtle Beach club where they first became professional musicians. They also undertook a short cruise, The Alabama & Friends Festival at Sea, which left for the Bahamas on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl ship. In addition, the band released Alabama & Friends, a tribute album encompassing covers from newer artists such as Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line, in addition to two new tracks by Alabama.
Alabama's music mixes both country, rock, and pop, particularly evident in their musical concept: the group were one of the first country bands to achieve significant airplay. Despite their influences from other genres, the band were most inspired by country music, which are most evident in their "harmonies, songwriting, and approach." Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that the band are "indebted to country, particularly the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard, bluegrass, and the sound of Nashville pop." The band echoed their country upbringing in one of their first trade articles: "We're country first and crossover second. If crossovers come, that's great, but we'd rather have a No. 1. country song than be lost in the middle of both country and pop charts," said Owen.
By the mid-1980s, the band increasingly moved toward a general pop-rock sound, "going for splashier productions with a more heavily amplified sound." Alabama's lyrics often centered around their homeland. Their first hit single, "Tennessee River", recounts being "born across the river in the mountains I call home," while "Dixieland Delight" chronicles cruising down a rural Tennessee byway.
Alabama is among the world's best-selling bands of all time, having sold a combined 75 million albums and singles. Alabama's best-selling studio album is Mountain Music (1982), while two greatest hits albums — Greatest Hits (1986) and For the Record (1998) — are among their highest in individual sales, with all three totaling five million in sales. Alabama received multiplatinum success for several albums; albums currently certified quadruple platinum include Feels So Right, The Closer You Get..., and Roll On, while Alabama's double platinum records include My Home's in Alabama, 40-Hour Week, Alabama Christmas and Greatest Hits Volume III.
Alabama amassed over 41 number one hit singles (on a variety of industry charts) and a dozen top-10 albums, including ten that peaked at number one on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. The group had 34 number ones on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, which are as follows:
Alabama are the most awarded band in the history of country music, with over 200 awards from a variety of organizations. In 1981, Alabama won both the Vocal Group of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year honors from the Country Music Association (CMA). It also won the Academy of Country Music (ACM)'s Vocal Group of the Year award, and Billboard's New Group of the Year honors. The group won the CMA's prestigious Entertainer of the Year award for three consecutive years (1982–84), and the ACM's Entertainer of the Year award five times (1982–86). In 1989, Alabama was named Artist of the Decade by the ACM. In addition, Alabama has also received the NARM Gift of Music award, the Alabama Hall of Fame Distinguished Service award, the Country Radio Broadcasters Humanitarian Award, the Prince Matchabelli National Hero Award, the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Alabama has been credited with "substantially broadening country's audience while becoming one of the most popular acts in American musical history." The band was notable for its three-person lead (as "most other country acts focused on a soloist accompanied by an anonymous band"), their collective hair length and facial hair (which would have been deemed unacceptable just a decade earlier), and their prominent electric bass and drums. They had a slightly edgier sound than other groups, and both played their own instruments and wrote their own songs. Alabama mostly appealed to a younger audience, although their clean-cut image appealed to the more conservative, older country audience as well. Kurt Wolff described the band's appeal: "They're just rebel enough for the young folks, but their parents also dig the boys' pretty harmonies, sentimental soft spots, and old-fashioned family values." Alabama gave prominence to their hometown of Fort Payne, and also raised awareness for environmental issues.
The band's incorporation of rock and roll into their sound was an inspiration for groups such as Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Exile, Diamond Rio, Lonestar, Ricochet, and the Mavericks. According to Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon, authors of Country Music: The Encyclopedia, the group's diminishing sales in the late 1980s reflected competition from country bands that would not have received recognition had it not been for Alabama paving the way. For their part, these groups credited Alabama with providing a massive influence on their careers. Prior to Alabama's unprecedented chart success, most country hit singles belonged to solo artists or duets. Many Alabama singles and albums represented crossover appeal on the pop charts.
Despite their successes, Alabama's career was loathed by music critics of the day, citing the "vacuous songs and watered-down, middle-of-the-road arrangements" that blurred lines between country and pop. The Baltimore Sun once argued the band "render[s] country music all but indistinguishable from pop" and thus "trivializes some of country's most hallowed traditions." Indeed, reviewers such as Wolff consider the band's "overriding problem" their calculated sound, which leads many contemporary music critics to label the band mediocre.
Beginning in 1982 and continuing until 1997, Alabama sponsored the June Jam, a music festival in Fort Payne, which at its peak drew 60,000 fans and raised millions for local charities. The group also held "Fan Appreciation Days," weekend events that included a golf tournament and a songwriters concert that raised money for charities in Fort Payne. Owen spearheaded "Country Cares for Kids," an annual country radiothon that raised over $70 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.