Arguably the most influential country band in history, Alabama are set to return September 18th with their first album of originals in 14 years. Called Southern Drawl, the project finds the Country Music Hall of Famers “getting off the porch” with a sound that revives the magic of country in the Eighties and Nineties.
The band’s three core members (and cousins) — lead singer Randy Owen, guitarist Jeff Cook and bassist Teddy Gentry — see the album as a labor of love, and tell Rolling Stone Country they were inspired to make new music after realizing fans wanted them back.
“Getting out here and touring like we have for a few years, seeing the response from the crowd, selling the tickets that we are, we realized there’s still a lot of fan interest and support out there,” says Gentry. “When you’re away from it for 11 or 12 years, you start wondering if you’re still relevant or not. But I think after getting back out there, one step led to another.”
Their relevance should not have been in question, really. Alabama was the band that shook up the status quo of their day, much like their acolytes Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line are doing now. Playing instruments on their own records, incorporating a rock influence, wearing casual street clothes and essentially inventing the idea of a country band — along with staging massive concerts with lights and sound that would rival anything in any other genre — Alabama laid the groundwork for country’s mainstream explosion.
Those days were long ago, though, and the bandmates are frank about encountering some obstacles on their way back into the fold, like getting in shape vocally. Famous for their stunning three-part harmonies, the band had to dig deep to revive their signature sound. Plus, nothing will ever compare to the clout they once commanded.
“We had a deadline for this one,” Gentry explains. “That was one of the things we got used to in the Eighties and Nineties: we’d have an unlimited budget. We never had anybody say, ‘You’re on the clock. You gotta be through in an hour-and-a-half.’ That was tough on this album. . . But to me, we’re doing the same thing and taking the same approach as we did in the Eighties and Nineties, where you work hard to find the very best songs you can, and try to make a great record out of a great song.”
The band was given the chance to produce the album completely themselves, though, and they say their record label never heard a track until the whole thing was finished. They wrote about half of the songs and sourced the rest from outside songwriters on Nashville’s Music Row, coming up with a stylistically and emotionally diverse set of 13 tracks. With an undeniable air of Southern authenticity, Southern Drawl is at times charming, tender, lighthearted and defiant.
“Wasn’t Through Loving You Yet” is a very current-feeling, mid-tempo song, “Hillbilly Wins the Lotto Money” offers a splash of absurdity and “Footstompin’ Music” does its title justice with help from a stomp-clap beat. Cook and Gentry each sing lead on their own tracks, and the guys say they were never trying to capture a particular modern sound — just something true to each story.
In fact, many of the tracks fit right in alongside classics like “Song of the South” and “Mountain Music.” Written by Tim James, George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, “This Ain’t Just a Song” spells out the power behind the band’s biggest hits, brimming with those famous harmonies and full of emotion.
“It’s amazing to me; almost everybody we’ve talked to has picked out that song,” says Gentry. “The first time I played it for Randy, we talked about how it’s kind of an inside, songwriter’s song. We were a little skeptical about whether it was ready for prime time, but we thought, ‘It’s such a cool song, we’ve gotta give it a shot.’ And I think our fans will get it, too.”
Conversely, “Southern Drawl” plays up the strong Southern identity the band has always possessed, but filters it through a checklist of un-wussified truisms, blaring guitars and protest-like shouting. “We drive trucks, we drink beer / We shoot whiskey and hunt deer,” goes the chorus.
“The guys who started writing this song — Chip Davis, Damon Carroll and Ronnie Rogers — one of them is a trainer, not a songwriter, and he brought this chorus up as a joke,” Gentry explains. “They were talking about all the songs that talk about pickup trucks and stuff, and when I saw the title I thought ‘What a cool title.'”
Owen eventually helped finish the track, although it may still see some revision.
“It already has a parody started,” Cook jokes. “It goes, ‘I can’t hear, I can’t see / I can’t tell when I pee.’ We call that one ‘Southern Drool.'”
The band is serious about the state of the nation’s farms, though. At a time when country music’s popularity is booming in the suburbs and less than five percent of the population works in agriculture, Alabama felt someone needed to speak up. A bumper sticker reading “No Farms No Food” was the catalyst for “American Farmer.”
“That’s who we are,” says Owen about the prideful anthem, penned by Dave Gibson. “Teddy grew up on a farm, Jeff’s a member of the FFA and 4H, and we feel like the most misunderstood and under-appreciated members of our society are the farmers and ranchers. We have the greatest famers in the world, and it seems like we do everything we can to discourage their creativity and productivity, and that’s bullshit. We need to make it cool to become a farmer or a rancher.”
And of course, there’s plenty of hot, sweaty romance for fans of classics like “Love in the First Degree” and “Feels So Right.” Alison Krauss lends her fiddle and harmony vocals to the delicate “Come Find Me,” while “One on One” (written solo by Owen) gives off the hazy aura of an Eighties music video, suddenly closing a door and dimming the lights on the listener. Owen starts the song off with a breathless, spoken-word promise to make his woman’s night the best of her life, and his adoration swells from there. It’s romantic in a way that country often isn’t anymore, almost to the point of being uncomfortable.
“Good,” Owen responds to the idea with a smile. “Have you heard of a guy named Conway Twitty?. . . That’s the thought. You look out here at these girls driving down the road, and this guy in the song wants to make her night beautiful so she’s got something to drive home to. When you sing, ‘Look at me, don’t say a word / My heart is hearing, I’ll kiss where you hurt,’ that’s maybe getting a little uncomfortable. But for me, that’s the kind of uncomfortable I like.”