Banned From the Bus: Alabama Drummer Paints Fractious Picture Of Hall Of Fame Act

Mark A. Herndon
Mark Herndon

In "The High Road: Memories From a Long Trip," drummer Mark Herndon unveils his bitter feud with Alabama bandmates Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook.

Mark Herndon spent 25 years playing drums in Alabama, routinely promoted in posters, T-shirts and album covers as one of the four members of the band. His image is embedded in the group’s bronze plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he was part of the ceremony when Alabama received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

For all the family unity that the band projected to fans in its imaging and stage show, Herndon apparently spent much of his tenure in Alabama at odds with the three harmony singers. Now, he’s telling that story— or at least, fragments of it — in his autobiography, The High Road: Memories From a Long Trip, available April 1.

“There’s enough in there where people can draw their own conclusions,” says Herndon during a 45-minute discussion at his publicist’s office.

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Best known for the years he spent onstage, driving the tempo behind such familiar titles as “Mountain Music,” “Tennessee River” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” Herndon is clearly at odds with his former touring partners. The book includes multiple references to Alabama, many of them positive, but he never mentions the band’s name in the 337-page text or the last names of his former bandmates/employers: Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook.

Between the book, his comments in the interview and other public events, it’s easy to understand why the animosity exists. (Alabama, which was made aware of Herndon’s allegations, declined to comment for this piece.) Among his charges:

• Herndon was banished from the band bus to the crew bus in 1984 when he complained that one of the band members kept the cabin temperature unbearably high, according to one story in the book.

• While his rock’n’roll image was a key part of the band’s marketing strategy, he was paid as little as $45,000 during some of the group’s peak commercial years in the early 1980s, he says during the interview. He was able to negotiate an increase to around $60,000 later in the decade, he says, and finally topped $100,000 in the 1990s. He signed away any merchandising rights until the group’s farewell tour in 2003-2004.

• Alabama sued him in 2008 for more than $200,000, contending he had been overpaid for merch on the farewell tour. The suit maintained there was zero net profit on T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia during that outing.

• In the ultimate kiss-off, Owen told The Tennessean in 2013 that Herndon was never really a member of the band.

If Herndon was a victim, he played the role somewhat willingly. He compares the time he spent onstage to a narcotic, and — though Herndon says he received poor advice from attorneys on some of his deals through the years — he concedes he ultimately agreed to the terms he worked under.

“Nobody held a gun at my head and told me to stay there,” he says. “I stayed there for various reasons, but I allowed myself to be intimidated by some that were there, [including] some of the behind-the-scenes players.”

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Herndon joined Alabama at an opportune moment. The group, operating as the house band at The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, S.C., had gone through several drummers and brought him onboard in 1979 after an audition that included Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.” Owen, according to the book, was impressed by Herndon’s hunger for success, and he officially started with the band on April 1 that year. Barely a year later, Alabama signed with RCA and challenged norms in the country music business, selling out arenas and appealing to college students with a sound that mixed Eagles harmonies, Waylon Jennings outlaw elements and rock-tinged musical aggression.

“Alabama and their fans was kind of like a movement,” says Herndon now. “I don’t think any of us really realized how big it was to the fans and the industry. You get caught up in getting so many awards, and it numbs you a little bit. We didn’t really realize that this had never been done before.”

Studio musicians did much of the instrumental work on Alabama’s recordings, though Herndon did man the toms on “Mountain Music” and “Christmas in Dixie,” both recorded prior to the 1984 confrontation. But Herndon was there at most of the studio sessions, learning the parts as the music went down.

One of the long-held precepts that Alabama dismantled was Music Row’s aversion to groups, which — based on rock music models — were likely to break up. The four men presented publicly as Alabama managed to hold the act together, and for a time, the experience was most of what Herndon had wanted.

“When everybody’s playing together and you get way down deep in that groove — some people call it ‘the pocket’ — you just live there,” he says. “Time slows down, and everything gets smooth, and it’s like it’s a high. You don’t have to think about what you’re playing anymore. You’re just channeling because of that groove.” As the offstage bitterness grew, those transcendent concert moments grew “fewer and farther between,” he says.

In the end, the lawsuit destroyed any hope of mending fences. Herndon maintains that after a three-year battle, the courts ruled in his favor, with Alabama forced to pick up his legal fees.

Despite being ostracized from the group, Herndon remains involved in the business, managing independent artist Leah Seawright. After years of silence, the book allows him to tell — sparingly — his side of the story. Perhaps most importantly, it gave him a forum to come to terms with his contentious past.

“It was cathartic,” reflects Herndon. “None of it bothers me anymore. It’s just something I did.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.