From 1979 to 2004, the Fort Payne-based country music band Alabama was one of the most successful musical acts in the United States. Millions of fans were drawn to the group's songs about their southern roots and their love for Fort Payne, for the state of Alabama, and for the South. The members of the group are also active in supporting local charities and members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Three cousins from Fort Payne in northeast Alabama were "Born Country" and grew up "Down Home" (two of their hit singles) to become the most successful band in country music history in terms of length of career, record sales, and awards. Rhythm guitarist Randy Owen (b. 1949), lead guitarist and fiddler Jeff Cook (b. 1949), and bassist Teddy Gentry (b. 1952) played together in high school, and after college in 1977 they became the band Wild Country. In 1979, they changed their name to Alabama. The group's music career mirrors how country music has both changed and stayed the same. Alabama's style of country music also shows that although its members have been influenced by rock and roll, they still use some traditional country sounds, including the fiddle and guitar. Drummer Mark Herndon (b. 1955, in Springfield, Massachusetts) joined Alabama in 1979 and helped give the group a rock and roll beat. Through the years, Alabama kept its roots in Fort Payne, and its members have been active in serving their city, state, and country.
Alabama broke into the national country music scene in 1980 with the hit single "My Home's In Alabama," which tells a classic country music story. The lyrics relate the cousins' southern Christian upbringing, which stressed church attendance and abstaining from alcohol. According to the song, even though they moved all over the United States, their hearts are still back home in Alabama. Because of the success of "My Home's In Alabama," the group signed with the major record company RCA, benefitting from the publicity that the major label could offer. As a result, Alabama was at the top of the country music charts throughout the 1980s. In 1980, Cashbox magazine named Alabama the New Vocal Group of the Year, and during their run, they had 42 singles reach the number one spot on the country music charts, sold more than 73 million albums, and won more than 150 industry awards. Alabama won a Grammy award in 1982 for Mountain Music and in 1983 for The Closer You Get... In 2005, after the group had disbanded, they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
Throughout their successful career, the group's three Fort Payne natives continued living in their hometown and built a museum of their history and accomplishments. Their roots in the South are important to the band's members. In many of their songs, they tell of being "southern born and southern bred" and use references to the area in which they live. Songs such as "Pete's Music City" describe going across the Georgia state line on Highway 41 to hang out and play music in their favorite music store located near the carpet mills. "Ole Baugh Road" tells about a specific road just outside of Fort Payne. "Tennessee River" is the name of both a hit single and the river that flows into north Alabama about 20 miles from Fort Payne. "Song of the South" mentions cotton farming, the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even one of their last songs, "Drive South," mentions how good it is to be a southerner.
Alabama's songs often focus on ordinary working people. Lyrics mention home-style foods, such as sweet potato pie, and working-class jobs, as Fort Payne was a center of the textile industry. In "Southern Star," the group sings about the hard life of a workers in a cotton mill. In "Forty Hour Week," the band pays tribute to steel-mill workers, auto workers, farmers, police, and food servers. Alabama's music clearly links to traditional country music, but it also incorporates elements of rock music. The group's close harmonies reflect the members' experiences in going to church and singing southern gospel. In concerts and recordings, the fiddle, a mainstay in traditional country music, plays an integral role in the group's songs; indeed one Alabama song is titled "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)."
Alabama broke new ground in the world of country music by performing as a group at a time when most country artists were solo performers backed by a band. At least partly because of their influence, groups have become very popular in country music. Members of contemporary country group Rascal Flatts, for example, consider Alabama a pioneering group that showed them how to be a successful country music band. Alabama also helped pioneer the use of powerful sound and lighting systems in their shows at large arenas, outdoor theaters, and even football stadiums at a time when such equipment and such venues were more commonly used by rock bands. This performance style has become common among most current country music stars, who now often play to 50,000 or more fans in stadiums.
Throughout their music careers and beyond, the members of Alabama have shown their loyalty to the Fort Payne community. For
several years they held a major festival called June Jam and donated the profits to Fort Payne charities and schools. They
have participated in the "Laying of the Wreath" ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Randy Owen and his wife Kelly have donated money for a special women's and children's section of the DeKalb County hospital in Fort Payne. Alabama truly has lived by the motto "you've got to give of yourself in order to receive." Alabama
officially disbanded in 2004, but the three cousins; Randy Owen, Jeff Cook, and Teddy Gentry, continue to live in Fort Payne.
Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: Second Revised Edition. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2002.
James E. Akenson
Tennessee Technological University
Published November 18, 2008
Last updated November 30, 2010