Randy Yeull Owen, b. 13 December 1949, Fort Payne, Alabama, USA; Jeffrey Alan Cook, b. 27 August 1949, Fort Payne; Teddy Wayne Gentry, b. 22 January 1952, Fort Payne; Mark Joel Herndon, b. 11 May 1955, Springfield, Massachusetts
ALABAMA BLENDED pop, rock and country to produce an exuberant style of music that, unusually, was as popular with traditional country music fans as youthful audiences. As a result, they achieved an unparalleled run of seventeen consecutive country chart-toppers by 1986 and won the Country Music Association’s ‘Entertainer of the Year’ award. In the ’80s and ’90s they had several pop hits without alienating their country audience.
The core of the group included three cousins, Owen, Cook and Gentry, who started playing together (with another cousin, Jackie Owen, on drums) in the Fort Payne area at dances as Wildcountry. They graduated to backing touring country stars in the early ’70s before making their first record, ‘I Want to Be with You’ (GRT), as Alabama in 1977. From the beginning their records reflected both their traditional leanings and their background as a dance band – unusually for a country act, like rock groups, they played their own instruments on record, rather than relying on session players. With Herndon on drums, the group signed with MDJ Records and secured their first country Top Twenty record, with the autobiographical ‘My Home’s in Alabama’ (1980), in which Owen’s mellow lead singing was supported by traditional close harmonies and the driving beat of Southern rock. The success of this, written like most of the group’s songs by Owen and Gentry, led to a contract with RCA in 1980, their first of numerous country chart-toppers, ‘Why Lady Why’, and their first Top Twenty hit, ‘Feel So Right’ (both 1981). These, in common with most of their hits, which include ‘Love in the First Degree’ (1982), ‘The Closer You Get’ (1983), ‘There’s No Way’ (1985) and ‘She and I’ (1986), were romantic ballads, but equally important to Alabama’s success, especially in live performance, were up-tempo numbers such as ‘Mountain Music’ and ‘Tennessee River’ featured on Alabama Live (1988).
Alabama’s success prefigured that of Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, the Judds and other performers who emerged in the ’80s and were even more committed to traditional styles of country music. In 1989 the band was named “group of the decade” by the Academy of Country Music. Their hit albums of the early 90s included Pass It on Down (1991) and American Pride (1993), which included the hit single ‘Hometown Honeymoon’. By the time of In Pictures (1995), their thirteenth album of original material, although their sound was predictable, it remained as popular as ever. 1998 saw the career retrospective, For the Record: 41 Number One Hits, which sold over 2 million units within the year and continued selling well in 1999.
© Phil Hardy, Dave Laing, Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001