Before Alabama, bands were usually relegated to a supporting role in country music – nearly every popular recording country 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 their musical concepts owed more to rock and pop than hardcore country.
But their 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 multiple awards.
First cousins Randy Owen (lead vocal, rhythm guitar) and Teddy Gentry (vocals, bass) formed the core of Alabama. The two grew up on separate cotton farms on Lookout Mountain in Alabama but learned how to play guitar together (they also sang in church together before they were six years old).
Gentry and Owen played in a number of different bands during the ’60s, playing country, bluegrass and pop on different occasions, and during high school (in 1969) they teamed up with another cousin, Jeff Cook (lead guitar, vocals, keyboards, fiddle), to form Young Country.
Young Country’s first gig was at a high school talent contest, where they performed a Merle Haggard song and won first prize – a trip to the Grand Ole Opry.
The band took a back seat until Owen and Cook graduated from college, after which they moved with Gentry to Anniston, Alabama, with the intention of keeping the band together. Sharing an apartment, the band practiced at night and performed manual jobs during the day. They changed their name to Wildcountry in 1972, adding drummer Bennet Vartanian to the line-up.
The following year, the band made the decision to become professional musicians, quitting their day jobs and playing a number of bars in the South East.
During this time, Wildcountry began writing their own songs, including My Home’s In Alabama. Vartanian left the band soon after they turned professional, and after losing four more drummers in quick succession, they added Rick Scott to the line-up in 1974.
Wildcountry changed their name to Alabama in 1977, the same year they 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 band in the South-East (at the end of the decade the group was playing over 300 shows a year).
The group then borrowed $4,000 from a Fort Payne bank, using the money to record and release their own records, which they sold at their shows. When GRT declared bankruptcy a year after the release of I Wanna Be With You Tonight, Alabama discovered they were forbidden from recording with another label because of a hidden clause in their contract. For two years, the band raised money to buy out their contract, and in 1979 they were finally able to begin recording again.
That same year, Scott left the band and 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 them get radio play for the single, I Wanna Come Over. The band 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 #33 on the charts.
In 1980, MDJ released the group’s 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 they were spotted by a talent scout from RCA who signed them 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 1 hits on the Billboard Country Singles Chart (interrupted by the 1982 holiday single, Christmas in Dixie) which ran until 1987.
Then after one #7 hit, the streak resumed for another six singles, resulting in a total of 27 #1 singles during the decade.
Alabama was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
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.
In 2010 an Australian composer called Alan Caswell initiated a lawsuit against Alabama claiming that Christmas in Dixie used copyrighted music from a song called On The Inside he had composed as the theme to the internationally successful 1970s Australian television show Prisoner (Cell Block H).
Despite his publisher, ATV Sony, hiring a musicologist who reaffirmed the song was stolen, Sony inexplicably refused to take any action.
It transpired that ATV Sony were also the publisher of the Alabama song – and this is the same corporation that – through the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) – sues ordinary people that download songs and copy them!
Guitar, vocals, fiddle, keyboards