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ALABAMA at 50

Superstar country band Alabama brings long-awaited show to Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday

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Superstar country band Alabama, featuring cousins (from left to right) Jeff Cook, Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry, perform at Bristol Motor Speedway this Saturday.

Alabama owns an indelible chapter in American music history. They reside right alongside MTV and Madonna from the 1980s as benchmarks of the decade.

Only thing, Alabama didn’t stay in the ’80s: They’re in the midst of celebrating a half-century of making music.

After several years of delays, Alabama return to Bristol. See them on Saturday, Aug. 14, during their 50th Anniversary Tour at Thunder Valley Amphitheatre Presented by Ballad Health at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. The band America, light-rock vets known for such hits as “A Horse with No Name,” opens the show.

“We are going to record some more, and we plan to keep touring to make up all the dates we had to reschedule over the last two-and-a-half years,” said Teddy Gentry, Alabama’s co-founding bass guitarist, “and when those are done, we will sit down and discuss how much we like playing music live to people that love us. And we love them.”

Long before their love affair with American music fans began, cousins Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook founded what became known as Alabama in Fort Payne, Alabama. They found their sound, one they’ve rarely deviated from, early on.

“When we went over to Jeff’s house for the first time to practice for a contest we entered and won,” Gentry said, “we knew we had something special with our three-part harmonies.”

Long before Nashville and a string of No. 1 singles, Alabama relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They landed a regular gig at The Bowery.

“We just wanted to make a living playing music,” said Randy Owen, co-founding guitarist and lead singer of Alabama. “We worked for tips only at The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, before we got our record deal. We all three lived in a rented house together and practiced our harmonies at night in the bedroom.”

Signed to RCA’s country division in Nashville, Alabama broke through in a big way. Their first single with RCA, “Tennessee River,” debuted on Billboard’s country singles chart on Memorial Day 1980. Forty-one years ago this week, on Aug. 16, 1981, “Tennessee River” became the first of dozens of No. 1 singles for the three harmonious cousins from Alabama.

By the time signature song “Mountain Music” hit two years later, Alabama was on its way to superstardom.

“‘Mountain Music’ is the one song that always gets the crowd up off their seats, standing, clapping and dancing,” Gentry said. “It is a combination of bluegrass, country-rock, blues and just plain good ole country lifestyle down here in the South. It is a very powerful song, and when you hear the guitar chords from Randy kicking the song off, the crowds go crazy. The song speaks the truth of our lifestyle.”

“Mountain Music” ranks as the band’s sixth of 21 straight chart-topping singles. Subsequent early-days hits include such sing-alongs as 1981’s “Feels So Right” and 1984’s “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler).” It begs the question, then and now, what makes a song right for Alabama to record?

“There is no right answer to that question,” said Jeff Cook, co-founding guitarist and fiddler in Alabama. “Guess the truth is if the song touches all three of us, then we make it our own, and we do the Alabama arrangement and harmonies.”

Established as legends a full generation ago, Alabama earned induction as members of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

“It is still the greatest honor we have ever received,” Cook said. “To walk into the rotunda at the Hall of Fame and see other members up there with our plaque is an emotional thing every time we go.”

Yet they aren’t relics. There’s neither dust nor creaks in the foundational sound of Alabama. They’re taut at a half-century, eager to not only perform hits but to seek more.

“We are going to record some more,” Gentry said.

Back in the saddle of the tour bus, on the road and onstage, Alabama rightly basks in the spotlight’s glow. Ultimately, theirs defines as a love affair, an elongated romance between Alabama and its ever-avid fans.

“Our fans have been amazing and loyal and continue today to support us with our new music and our live shows,” Owen said. “We are seeing three generations of fans coming to our concerts.”

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at CityDesk@bristolnews.com.

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