Though it’s tough to believe now, there was a point when Alabama was a brand-new band trying to make a name for itself — and Randy Owen says some people weren’t too supportive of their new sound back in 1980.
“I remember one night, Jeff Cook was playing the fiddle, and I thought I needed to write a song where we could use it. That turned out to be ‘Tennessee River.’ I remember we were in Greenville, South Carolina, and this girl came up and said, ‘That’s the worst damn song I’ve ever heard in my life. You can’t dance to it.'”
That bit of criticism aside, the band has kept country fans on the dance floor for decades. Their legendary string of hits helped them sell more than 70 million records and gain induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. This Friday, Alabama releases Southern Drawl — their first all-new studio album since 2001.
Bassist Teddy Gentry tells Billboard that the idea for the album came about when they were working with Gospel icon Bill Gaither on the 2014 Cracker Barrel project Angels Among Us: Hymns and Gospel Favorites.
“We enjoyed doing that so much that we began talking about doing a country album. A few months went by, and we started looking for material. It was just about trying to find the best new songs that would excite them — and us too.”
The set’s first single, “Wasn’t Through Lovin’ You Yet,” has that trademark Alabama ballad style, but the band does venture outside of its comfort zone a bit. The title track of the album could very well fit within the parameters of a radio format that features Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan with its in-your-face production style. Owen says mixing up musical styles is something the band that has always done.
“When we worked at Myrtle Beach for tips, one song would be Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the next song might be ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ so it wasn’t unusual for us to do different sounds. We were playing for tips. We love a lot of different types of music and artists.”
In previewing some of the new music for fans, Owen said one song that has been getting a lot of response: “This Ain’t Just a Song.” “I think that anybody who has been a songwriter — which is my first love — it’s a very special thing. It might be more of an industry-insider song, but it was just too good to pass up. It has such a pretty melody, and the lyrics are incredible. It’s an honor to cut a song like that, and the fans are getting the song to. Some of the ones that we’ve played it for, I’ve seen a few tears.”
Those waterworks will no doubt continue to flow on Southern Drawl‘s closing track, “I Wanna Be There.” It almost didn’t make the cut, but Owen said an “outside” opinion changed things. “That was one that we debated about. The contract was for 12 songs. I had been listening to that song and was unsure about it. But my grandson called me and said, ‘Poppy, that song called “I Wanna Be There,” when can I buy that?’ After that, I thought I needed to go back and listen to it one more time. He was thinking about when his parents brought his little brother home and he got to hold him. I had never thought about it from the standpoint of a little kid holding their baby brother or sister. It’s very powerful.”
One song Owen was very familiar with on the album was “One on One,” which was the title cut of his 2008 solo disc on Broken Bow. The band changed the tempo of the track, which the singer says is a tribute of sorts to one of their favorite artists.
“We wanted to do something like Conway Twitty. He had so many hits along the way, and was such an influence. That was definitely a nod to his style, and something for the ladies. I think about all the women who come home from work and have their husbands fix them a glass of wine or something and a romantic night. It’s just something to get them in a romantic mood so they can enjoy the night.”
Owen, Gentry and Jeff Cook are all grateful for their spot in music history, and the influence they have had upon some of the biggest acts in music. “We always dreamed of recording songs that the audience would be able to sing along with. Now we are so lucky and blessed that we have these great stars singing our songs back to us and their audiences. I remember playing ‘My Home’s in Alabama’ at the Bowery not too long after we had written it, and this old guy who was an ex-wrestler said, ‘That’s the best Southern rock song I’ve ever heard in my life.’ We thought, ‘That’s a Southern rock song?’ We just wrote songs and performed the way we felt like we should play them. We did all of our music in the studio. We didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.”