In 1983, RCA Records wanted a Christmas single from their leading country act: Alabama. Lead singer Randy Owen recalls to Billboard that while the reigning CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year winners weren’t too excited about the album, they agreed — with one stipulation. They wanted to write the material.
So, in the midst of one-hundred degree temperatures in Fort Payne, Alabama, the group cranked the air conditioner up until the room was about 35 degrees, and penned “Christmas In Dixie,” which quickly became a favorite with fans around the globe. Two years later, the band released a full album of holiday material. That album, simply titled Alabama Christmas, has become one of the Yuletide staples of the country format, a fact that astounds Owen to this day.
“It’s amazing to me,” he says of the fans’ attachment to the disc. “We have people all over the country — all over the world — who will start their decorating by listening to ‘The Red Album’ — that’s what they call it,” he states, in reference to the set’s simple art design. “A lot of people might not know much about Alabama, but they know ‘Angels Among Us’ and ‘Christmas in Dixie.’”
The Country Music Hall of Fame members released a second Christmas album in 1996, and have just released a third package, American Christmas. Owen says the new disc is a mixture of old and new songs, with standards such as “Away in a Manger” and “Winter Wonderland” sharing the spotlight with tracks like the ’50s-sounding “Ain’t Santa Cool?”
“We wanted to do some traditional songs. Teddy had written some songs, and we went back and forth with those. Then, we had the song ‘Remember Me,’ which was a song that I fell in love with when I first heard it,” he says of the song that was originally recorded by Joey + Rory on their holiday album.
As far as ‘Santa’ goes, Owen definitely wanted to go back in time a bit. “I was talking with Ronnie Rogers, and we wanted do something of a beach song, but also a Christmas song,” he explains. “We wanted to come up with something that had a shag beat that they could play up and down the grandstand up the beach. Having something like that is a lot easier said than done. But, what we put together, I was very excited about it. When I played it for my wife, she started doing those dance steps, so we had done what I had set out to do.”
The recording became a very personal one to Owen for another reason: “I mentioned my grandkids’ names in the fade-out, so that’s something that will live on for all the years after Poppy’s gone. They can sit back and listen to Poppy singing about them.”
Owen’s granddaughter also played a role in the group’s decision to cut the classic “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which he said stemmed from a version he heard by Dolly Parton. “One of my granddaughters was talking to me and wanted to hear ‘that Dolly song.’ I realized that was what she was asking for. She had done an up-tempo thing at the end of it, which we took a pointer from that, and it fit right in with the stuff we do with ‘Tennessee River’ and ‘Mountain Music,’ where we put a little fiddle on it, and have a little bit of hand-clapping and fun with it. I’ve always loved the melody of that one. We pull it out at some of the shows, and everyone reacts well to it and has a lot of fun with it.”
There is a touch of sadness mixed with nostalgia on the tender “First Christmas Without Daddy,” which Owen wrote with his own father in mind. The singer’s dad passed away in 1980, just as Alabama was on the cusp of national stardom. “That was one that I should have written a long time ago,” he confesses. “My daddy taught me to play the guitar, and was such a wonderful person. As success was coming my way musically, I lost him. So, I spent the first couple years of this wonderful career being sad. All the success didn’t mean as much, because I couldn’t share it with him. That’s what the total meaning of the song is with me. There’ s the hurt and pain that I feel from losing my daddy, and have never been able to share the stories with him about where I go and what I do.”
Though the heartbreak and loneliness continue to stay with him, he’s humbled to be able to share his thoughts musically, saying, “That’s why you write songs. Tom T. Hall had a great statement: ‘If you’re going to write about the good stuff, you’ve got to write about the bad.’ I truly believe that.”
The disc includes an all-new acoustic version of “Christmas in Dixie” and Jeff Cook’s raucous “(I Wanna) Rock N Roll Guitar,,” while Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals on the timely “Sure Could Use Some Christmas Around Here.” Owen says the latter was penned long before tragedies in Charlottesville and Las Vegas, but remarked that the song definitely touches a nerve. “I’ve been amazed over the years at the songs that we have done that have different meanings for people. Sometimes, they’ll pull out a meaning that you never thought of when you write it, or are performing it. I don’t think we had those thoughts. Obviously, we had no idea what was going to happen, but there’s still a lot of stuff going on in the world that we would love to make better. We’d love it if some of the things didn’t happen, period. But, if we do our music the way we should, sometimes it’s going to be timely. I think that’s the case with that song.”
The trio of Owen, Gentry, and Cook (who still performs with the band, despite his battle with Parkinson’s Disease) looks to blast into the New Year at full speed. “We’ve booked a lot of shows for 2018,” he says, adding that the “R” word — though the band did take some time away from each other and the road a few years back — has never been a viable option. “I don’t think we ever mentioned the word ‘retirement’ — we were just going to take some time off. Honestly, we were amazed that the public still wanted to see and hear us. We’re very grateful for that opportunity to come back out. I told the people in Scottsdale the other night, ‘We’ve been playing together for about fifty years. You folks have given us the opportunity to do that. We’re thankful boys.’”