Although it’s been more than 25 years since Alabama’s last No. 1 country single, the influence of this trio – singer/guitarist Randy Owen, bassist Teddy Gentry and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Cook – continues to reverberate through today’s country scene. Formed in 1969, Alabama was the first act to incorporate a rock influence into country, and the group’s sound was nothing short of revolutionary at the time.
Their music brought scores of new fans into country, and at their peak during the 1980s, these natives of Fort Payne, Alabama reeled off 21 straight No. 1 hits – a record for consecutive chart-topping songs that is unlikely to be broken.
Eventually, the nearly non-stop grind of touring and recording took a toll, and the group, which beginning in 1979 also included drummer Mark Herndon, broke up in 2004. But in 2010, Owen, Gentry and Cook began working together again – minus Herndon, who was never an official band member. A first post-reunion tour followed in 2013 and Alabama released their first new album in 14 years, “Southern Drawl,” in 2015.
The group hasn’t had any top 10 hit singles in this second chapter, but after being forced off the road for more than a year by the pandemic, Alabama is back on tour, playaing Johnny Mercer Theatre on Dec. 5. And as the current string of arena concerts shows, Alabama remains a major live draw.
Owen and Gentry agreed to answer some questions via e-mail. Here’s what Owen and Gentry had to say about 50-plus years of Alabama:
Were you able to play any live shows in any form during the pandemic?
Teddy Gentry: No, we were not, but we did do a live stream concert from Nashville for Camping World/Gander MT that had over 1.2 million viewers on New Year’s Eve.
What did the three of you do with the extra free time during the pandemic?
Randy Owen and Gentry: Both of us have working cattle farms and Jeff has a recording studio, so that kept us all busy. And we wrote a lot of songs in the past 12 months.
Are you able now to play shows with full capacity in these markets or are there crowd size limits for any of the venues that are on the current tour routing?
Gentry: From what the promoters have told us, as of today 95 percent of the venues we are playing are at or are going to be at 100 percent capacity when we play.
Do you see or feel much of a difference in the kind of show you put on these days compared to during the ‘80s? Has what you want to achieve each night on stage changed at all?
Owen: We are not in our 20s and 30s anymore, but we have always given 200 percent at our live shows and want to deliver what the fans want to hear. This tour will be the best of the best Alabama live.
What’s your set list like these days? I’d imagine you can’t fit all of your big hits into a set, so how do you decide what songs make it into the show?
Owen: We are so thankful that we have had 43 No. 1 songs through the years. We can’t do all of them, or even half of them, in a show, but we normally try to do around 15 to 18 songs. Depending on the crowd, we may add more.
Jeff revealed he has Parkinson’s disease in 2017. That is a very difficult thing with which to live. How is he doing and what impact is Parkinson’s having on Jeff’s playing and singing? Will he be able to play Alabama’s shows this year?
Gentry: Parkinson’s robs you of your muscle control and it has affected Jeff’s instrument playing and singing. At this time, we cannot say if Jeff will be able to appear or not. It is based on how he feels day to day. He would love to be out with us and we would love to have him on stage. He supports Randy and I doing the tour to continue the legacy of the band.
Do you look at your band as the act that pioneered the mix of country and rock that characterizes a lot of mainstream country today?
Gentry: To be honest, we are the first “country” rock band to come along, four guys with long hair, jeans, tennis shoes and t shirts having hit records in country music. It was unheard of in the late ‘70s. Nashville did not know what to expect from us and was a little scared until we had hit records.
Randy told one interviewer, Alabama is a complicated bunch, but when you three do what you do together it’s a magical thing. What do you see as the magic in the sound that comes from the three of you?
Owen: We are all from the same small town. We all live on top of a mountain and we all are cousins. Something about that has to do with the Alabama magic sound.
Were you able to take in and enjoy the success you were having in the 1980s?
Gentry: Blur is a good way to put it. We worked 350 days a year for almost 30 years in a row. Think about that, raising a family and running a business that employed 80-some people. But we did also enjoy our success, and it allowed us to have things we would never have been able to get or do without our success.
Alabama broke up for many reasons, one of which was simply the strain and stress of recording and touring pretty much non-stop for two-plus decades. How have you set things up since reuniting to avoid the burnout that occurred during the group’s previous time together?
Gentry: Well, we took about 10 years off. We now tour in a way that is comfortable, no more than two shows a week. We also have the best band we have ever had on the road and that helps make it easy. We also don’t do 60- to- 80-city tours anymore. This tour, when it’s done, will have been to about 30 cities.
Are the friendships within the group different since the reunion? What, if anything, has changed in how you get along on a day-to-day basis?
Gentry and Owen: We get along like brothers. We have been through a lot together with good times and hard times, but now we are enjoying ourselves and loving the feedback from our fans and having a fun time back on the road.
Do you see any more studio albums in Alabama’s future?
Gentry: If I was a betting man, I think you should look for that to happen sooner than later.
ALABAMA plays the Johnny Mercer Theatre on Dec 5, with special guests Marshall Tucker Band. Visit savannahcivic.com for tickets and information. Check out our online exclusive with Marshall Tucker Band.