Feels So Right: An Interview with Randy Owen of Alabama
This year’s Greenwich Wine & Food Festival, running from September 25-27 and benefiting the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp founded by the late Paul Newman, featured what has become customary: exhibitions on culinary culture, including assorted cooking demonstrations, food and wine tastings, and select restaurant dining. Also on the menu, so to speak, headlining the festival’s second and final night, was the legendary country music group Alabama.
“It was amazing to me to see, basically, a totally different audience than we usually play for,” says lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Randy Owen, “and I guess the song that really surprised me was ‘Born Country.’ They sang [along to] that and I thought, There’s nobody in Greenwich, Connecticut who knows what country is,” Owen adds, laughing, “but I was wrong.”
Indeed, for nearly the past four decades, people of all ages and walks of life have taken the music of Alabama — the band is rounded out by lead guitarist Jeff Cook and bassist Teddy Gentry — to heart.
Since the 1980 LP, My Home’s in Alabama, brought Ft. Payne’s favorite sons to national prominence, Alabama has racked up 43 Number One singles — 21 of them consecutively — while selling an estimated 75 million albums and winning every conceivable industry award. In 2005, the band was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, while Owen, who has penned several of Alabama’s signature hits — “Feels So Right,” “Lady Down on Love,” “Tennessee River,” and “Mountain Music” among them — was inducted last year to the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
No country music group has sold or been honored more.
“There are no guys who appreciate it more, either,” insists Owen, “just because we had to work so hard.”
They’re still working. After nearly a decade off the road following the band’s 2003/04 American Farewell Tour during which each member pursued assorted solo and philanthropic projects, Alabama returned to the concert stage in 2013 for the Back to the Bowery Tour, commemorating 40 years since the band first played its old Myrtle Beach stomping grounds. Now, on the heels of last year’s hit LP, Alabama & Friends (which featured duets on a batch of the band’s classics with such artists as Toby Keith, Trisha Yearwood, and Kenny Chesney, as well as two new songs, including “That’s How I Was Raised”), comes Alabama & Friends at the Ryman.
Released on both audio and visual formats, the 90-minute set captures country music’s most celebrated band playing some of its greatest hits on Nashville’s most hallowed stage while a handful of special guests (including Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Jamey Johnson) reprise their appearances on last year’s studio album.
“When we started that project with the live stuff,” says Owen, “we had no idea that these young, great artists would be interested in us.”
Why wouldn’t they be? Ask them as well as any other young (or young-at-heart) fans at an Alabama concert these days what brought them there and the answers are usually the same: “We grew up on this music.”
Donald Gibson: Back when you guys were playing the Bowery in Myrtle Beach in the ‘70s — trying to be the best musicians you could be, working like hell — what was the realistic goal for what you all wanted the band to become? It’s one thing to want to be successful, but Alabama ended up being the most successful country band of all time and one of the most successful bands in music, period.
Randy Owen: That was the goal. That was the goal, yeah, and it pretty much says that because we put up with everything from working on tips to all kinds of disappointments. For us it was like one day we’re playing for tips and the next we’re playing in Shreveport, Louisiana for several thousand people. Then it just got better from there. Yeah, that was the goal. I could’ve never sacrificed the hardships had I not had the goal of being successful like we’ve been.
When did you recognize that you could excel at being a songwriter, that you had the skill and the intuition to write affecting songs?
Well, when we were in Myrtle Beach [there were] girls that we knew that worked as waitresses and bartenders there at the Holiday Inns and the local restaurants, local bars. We would usually work on Saturday afternoon for three or four hours and those girls would come in. Of course they didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any money, and we were all buddies and trying to watch out for one another. But they would request those songs — “Lady Down on Love,” “Feels So Right,” “Tennessee River” — and I remember more than one of those girls saying, “Someday you’re gonna make it big and you’ll be able to sing that song.” They were very prophetic in what they said. And the thing with those kids, they weren’t so-called country music fans. They were just there because we were a local band that they knew. We’d visit their places when they were working and have a burger or a hotdog and drink a beer or whatever, and we never forgot to give them a tip, a dollar or whatever because we all were there together working on tips.
Their encouragement was like a validation for you and the songs.
Yeah. I remember [when] me and Teddy had just written “My Home’s in Alabama” and we performed it, this big ol’ guy that was like a wrestler — he was one of the waiters — walked up to the stage and said, “That’s the best Southern rock song I’ve ever heard in my whole damn life!” [Laughs] We didn’t look at anything except it’s just music. It was a song that me and Teddy had written and we practiced it and worked on the arrangement. During the day when we had a chance we would go to all the radio stations. We didn’t know if they were country, rock, soul, whatever they were. We would all go out and visit the stations and take those little 45 records and say, “Would you play the record?” And in many, many cases they did play the record. So that was the reason why I think we had so many crossover records, singles and of course the albums crossed over too. We always would go to the Northeast too, and the West Coast. So many of the artists that of course were heroes of ours really didn’t go to those areas and play music.
When the band was in the thick of that 21-song streak of Number One singles, did you ever fear that the pressure to maintain that success would either overwhelm your ability to write a good song or for the band to find good material?
Yes. Yes. Yes. I was afraid it would curtail the ability to stay true to who Alabama was, and just do songs that would be commercially easy for radio stations to put on, spin it, and have a Number One record. It concerned me. I’m not sure how the other guys feel about that, but it concerned me because to me there are songs that you write that you think, This is an Alabama song, and you just feel, This is us.
A song like “Take Me Down” [from Mountain Music, 1982], for instance, sounds like it could’ve been an R&B song.
We just looked at it as, “It’s us singing. We like this song. This is the way we hear it arranged and everything.” Still to this day it’s amazing all these songs, I just wish we could sing all of them on the shows. We don’t even get to do half the Number One singles.
Your lyrics have such picturesque imagery and detailed depictions, from the great-outdoor scenes of “Mountain Music” or “Tennessee River” to the intimacy expressed in something like “Face to Face” or “Feels So Right.” Is that, generally, just how you perceive the environment and circumstances around you or is it more the result of a lot of revision and work?
I write songs that touch my heart. Sometimes I get a chance to write with some other people and it works. But just a song that I write is sexier, more intimate, and I can write it without using words that they won’t let me use. Then of course the “Mountain Musics” of the world just don’t come along… That and “Tennessee River,” I just thank God that I was able to write those songs. I listen today and I think, There’s still not a “Mountain Music” out there. There’s not a “Dixieland Delight.” I didn’t write that song, but it’s those kind of songs that kind of separate the music that I hear today from what was going on with Alabama.
The line in “Dixieland Delight” describing a girl as a “sweet, soft, Southern thrill,” that’s beautiful.
We all got that. “Homegrown country girl gonna give me a whirl on a Tennessee Saturday night.” What’s funny about that is girls who aren’t even Southern understand that, and the guys certainly understand it.
The guys understand what it does to the girls.
Well, yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. We did that song in the studio [with] live vocals, just playing along with the guitars. That’s why it’s flat, sharp, flat, sharp, up and down. I don’t think we’ve ever cut a perfectly sounding record and I’m really proud of that.
Autotune wouldn’t suit you guys.
I hate bullshit songs and I hate bullshit production. I’d rather hear songs that have feeling like “Face to Face,” forget about tuning. That’s why I put that effect on my guitar on “Lady Down on Love,” “Tennessee River,” and “Mountain Music.” I wanted it to sound a little bit out of tune. That’s the way I heard it and luckily I got to do it that way, and I’m just very grateful that those songs came my way and Alabama got to do them. We still do them today. It just feels like those were songs that we were meant to perform.
Is it more difficult nowadays to find quality songs from other writers?
Yes. They’re off on another… It’s another world.
“That’s How I Was Raised” [from Alabama & Friends, 2013] was a breath of fresh air.
Yeah, I put a couple of lines in there. Hopefully the writer didn’t get mad. “The old rugged Cross and college football, that’s how I was raised.” I don’t remember what they had in there to start with, but… You sing that song to an audience no matter where you are, they get it right off. College football is part of the fiber of our country and it’s certainly part of our fiber. We’re from Alabama, that’s all we know how to do is play football and we’re pretty good at it.
Borrowing a line in “My Home’s in Alabama,” what keeps you going at this stage in your career? What keeps you interested and motivated to still be a musician?
The live shows. That’s it. It’s the live shows. I love the fact that you see the enjoyment… And you’re not just up there playing music for yourself. You’re playing music for those people. It brings them back, takes them to a place for the first time or maybe for the hundredth time of where they love to go. You can see it on their faces; you can see it on their lips when they’re singing; you can see it when they’re dancing, all that kind of stuff. It’s a great feeling, and the live performances take me to a nice place where I feel good about life.