Back in the late 1970s and early Eighties, country was in a transition period similar to where it finds itself today. The flash, extravagance and posturing of the Urban Cowboy phase was beginning to give way, and in its place stood the complete opposite: Alabama, a band of blue-collar cousins who described themselves as “just poor boys from the South having a good time playing guitars.”
On September 18th, Alabama returns with Southern Drawl, their first album of original music in 14 years. The group recently sat down with Rolling Stone Country to talk about returning to a genre that has changed in many ways. Thinking back, though, they remember encountering some of the same hurdles as today’s crossover-friendly artists, and that should come as no surprise. Their genre-blurring style was a primary influence on stars like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
“You know the impact you make on your fans, but you don’t find out until years later that some artist was in the audience that night and you inspired them,” bassist Teddy Gentry explains. “Like with Jamey Johnson. He said, ‘When Daddy went and bought me a guitar, I sat down and the first song I ever learned was ‘My Home’s in Alabama.'”
“And Jason Aldean said [at the 9th annual ACM Honors, where Alabama accepted a career achievement award] what made him want to be in a band was seeing us,” adds singer Randy Owen.
A lot has been made in the past few years about the growth and direction of modern country music. Now one of the most popular formats in the U.S., the genre’s musical scope has broadened accordingly with the influx of new fans. Artists who embrace the shift are loved by listeners but often panned by critics — something Alabama said they can sympathize with. In many ways, they experienced the same thing, and their success in overcoming the detractors led directly to the genre’s massive success today.
“We were progressive,” Gentry says. “People ask about the music today and they forget we were as ‘outlaw’ then as anybody coming along today. We were T-shirts and tennis shoes and playing loud, capturing the excitement of a rock show live.”
Alabama was one of the first bands to show the potential of a country/rock fusion: a laid-back casual style of dress, massive concerts featuring the latest in lighting and sound technology and songs that pushed buttons for fans of both genres.
“[Our style developed] because of what we went through,” Owen says. “In the beginning, we had to play those songs in Myrtle Beach for tips, and it was everything from the Doobie Brothers to Marshall Tucker to Merle Haggard, so those songs were not foreign to us. It seemed normal.”
Today, FGL covers Dr. Dre and Eminem in concert, Bryan has been known to lead a stadium in a Journey singalong and Aldean stalks the stage like a country version of Axl Rose. The pop-culture references have changed, but that universal appeal is still the same as when “Mountain Music” seemed “too rock.”
“I think that’s what Nashville still offers,” Owen says. “They’ve got great songs and these great artists that can sing the phonebook, and that’s why they’re selling out stadiums.”