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Alabama: hitting home.

Nineteen eighty-five has proved to be "The Year of Alabama" in country music, just as did 1984, 1983. . . . For three consecutive years, this foursome--three Alabama-born cousins and one transplanted Yankee--from the small town of Fort Payne, Alabama, has edged out such veterans as Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers to win the Country Music Association's annual "Entertainer of the Year" award.

In the five short years since Alabama entered the national scene, the band has also won two Grammys, sold more than 16 million albums and cut 17 consecutive No. 1 singles. "It's unbelievable," says the 33-year-old bass player, Teddy Gentry, "especially when you consider that just a little over five years ago we were still doing songs for a dollar apiece in a little club in Myrtle Beach [South Carolina]! Playing for tips!"

Those days of passing the hat for spare change are now long gone. Today, the band routinely racks up $50,000 or more for a single performance. But Alabama's open-hearted musical charm and genuine populist spirit remain as unabashedly fresh and appealing as ever. Its clean, harmony-based brand of country rock is capable of infusing even huge crowds with the comfortable intimacy of a down-home Saturday-night square dance. Without contrivance, these four young men from Alabama have translated their enthusiastic, Southern-style celebration of roots and regionalism into something approaching a national mania--something dozens of slickers bands have tried and failed.

"Everything we sing is real; it's felt. We couldn't sing anything we didn't believe in," insists Gentry, who with his cousin Randy Owen, 35, has co-written many of the group's most stirring anthems, such as "My Home's in Alabama." "I'd like to be remembered in a positive way, for making people feel good when they leave our concerts, like we gave them absolutely everything we had to give."

One testimonial to their sincerity: These four have, in a sense, traveled a long, hard road just to get back to where they started. Today, they still reside near their native Fort Payne (pop. 11,485), in the extreme northeastern part of the state, within spitting distance of the Tennessee and the Georgia borders.

The three country cousins, Gentry, Owen and the lead guitarist, Jeff Cook, 35, were all born and raised near Fort Payne. And today, when they have a few days off, you will find them there, rather than at the nightspots of Nashville or under the bright lights of Sunset Boulevard. What free time they have is spent with their families. (The three cousins are all married with children.) They pass their time at home raising cattle, eating barbecue down at the local outlet, fishing with their kids in the same fishing holes they fished as youngsters and generally clinging to the no-frills rural lifestyle in which they were brought up. Recently, they even headed a membership drive for the local and the national PTAs.

"The past part of all this is that, unlike a lot of others, we've been able to make the professional part of our lives work and still be at home," says Owen, the lead singer and guitarist. "We now know people all over the world, but we still live in the same little old community where we grew up."

A Fort Payne banker lent the boys money back when few people, other than the band members themselves, believed in the power of their music. And their neighbors and kinfolk in Fort Payne helped keep up their morale during more than a decade of fallow years when they had every reason to quit.

Not surprisingly, Alabama's music today is redolent of a sense of belonging, of a sense of home and of gratitude for the emotional ties that bind: Could it be the satisfaction Of being understood When the people really love you And let you know wneh it's good? Oh, I'll speak my Southern English As natural as I please. I'm in the heart of Dixie Dixie's in the heart of me.*

But the Alabama men have done more than just write songs about home; they've found an even better way to pay back old emotional debts and to reaffirm their sense of community. Their annual "June Jam," a huge benefit concert held each spring in Fort Payne, has drawn hundreds of thousands the past few years. The event has raised more than a million dollars, distributed among dozens of community organizations--everything from the Four-H and the Boy Scouts to the Birmingham Children's Hospital and the regional council on alcoholism. This generosity is a particular boost to this pocket of Appalachia that has traditionally suffered from double-digit unemployment and widespread poverty.

Owen and Gentry, second cousins, are themselves no strangers to hard times. They were raised on adjacent farms in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, in De Kalb County, known as "The Sock Capital of the World" for its large number of textile mills. The two grew up like brothers, working side by side in the fields, raising cotton, hogs and watermelon as they helped their families scrape a meager living out of the soil. Neither family could afford a television or a radio. Owen remembers seeing his father, a guitar-picking, God-fearing man named Gladstone, break down and cry when a hard rain washed away the corn crop in which he'd invested every cent he had.

"I think me and Randy were raised in more poverty then Loretta Lynn or anyone in this [country music] business," the tall, soft-spoken Gentry says with a laugh. "I was talkin' to Loretta one night, and I said, 'Loretta, at least when you were growing up, you had an outhouse. All we had was a path!'"

"Success is probably sweeter to me than to anybody in the band," Owen adds. "I know what it's like to be nowhere."

By the time they were five years old, Owen and Gentry (who, indeed, look much like brothers when their dark, handsome features are etched side by side in the spotlight) had already begun singing together at the Lookout Mountain Pentecostal Holiness Church, which they attended with their families. Some time later, in high school, they met a city cousin (four times removed), Jeff Cook. The son of an auto-parts salesman who was also a guitar player, Cook grew up closer to town, in more financially secure, middle-class comfort than his cousins. Since the age of three, he had been involved in several bands. In 1969, the three joined forces musically and made their debut. At their first performance in a local talent show, they sang a Merle Haggard tune. The youngsters won the contest and received tickets to the Grand Ole Opry, where they met Lester Flatt backstage. Soon they were playing for small wages at Canyonland Park near scenic Little River Canyon.

Before the three finally decided to pursue their music full-time, Owen earned an English degree at a nearby university. Cook attended an electronics trade school and landed a job with the federal government, and Gentry continued laying carpet for a living.

The band members finally summoned up the courage--against the strenuous objections of their parents--to leave their daytime jobs behind and seek their fortunes as musicians. Several frustrating years on the Southern night-club and motel-lounge circuit followed. The musicians went heavily into debt, paying to record their own records and promoting them out of their own pockets while they tried repeatedly and without success to attract the attention of Nashville's recording industry. "We had just about every reason to quit," Cook adds. "But we went on anyhow."

Then, after losing a succession of six drummers, the band stumbled across Mark Herndon, a Massachusetts-born marine brat. He auditioned for the group when it played at a Holiday Inn where his mother was night clerk. Herndon's restless rock-'n-roll sensibilities gave the band an edge of contemporary energy.

In 1980, executives from RCA Record's Nashville office spotted Alabama at a talent show in that city's Hyatt Regency. RCA signed the band in hopes that its debut album might sell 50,000 copies. It's since sold 2 million, and it's still selling!

Early on, the three cousins had the foresight to incorporate the group. Today, they control their extensive business operations (everything from booking their own concerts to publishing a free quarterly fan-club newsletter) from headquarters in Fort Payne. "We now have retirement programs set up for all our employees, as well as for ourselves," Owen explains. "We make sure they've got insurance coverage. We hope that everybody who works for us will be able to get 'em a house. That's all very important to us."

Alabama members also guard with near ferocity the rather wholesome, clean-cut image they've nurtured over the years. You can call it country or you can call it rock, but one thing is certain: Alabama will never put on a show you couldn't take your children to see. The performers don't even permit their road crew to drink alcoholic beverages near an auditorium or anywhere in the public eye.

"To me, all these awards we've won are something to live up to," Owen says. "We're not a bunch of angels, by any means. But we do believe in promoting the positive things. People write us letters and say their little boy sings our songs, or one of their kids has a double-neck guitar like the one Jeff plays. These are the kinds of things you've got to be aware of as far as the way you live your life."

"The music, the money--all those things are important," Gentry adds. "But the main thing is doing what we do with dignity. That's the way we've come up, and hopefully when the time comes, we'll go out the same way: with dignity."
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:music group
Author:Allen, Robert E.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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