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Country is back: Alabama celebrates 40 years

5:36 AM, Sep 9, 2013   |    comments
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USA TODAY - In 1973, a group of guys from the Fort Payne, Ala., area took a job providing "continuous entertainment" for a bar in Myrtle Beach, S.C., called The Bowery. When those guys – now better known as the award-winning country group Alabama – started their 40th anniversary tour in April in Myrtle Beach, they needed a bigger venue. Namely, the Alabama Theater.

"We're calling it the 'Back to the Bowery' tour," says guitarist Jeff Cook. "It's an opportunity to celebrate the fact that, 40 years ago, we gave up our real jobs and started playing music for a full-time living."

Southern stars: After Alabama stopped being The Bowery's house band in 1980 – the same year the group first topped the country charts with Tennessee River – they became one of the biggest country acts in history, selling tens of millions of records and having dozens of No. 1 hits, including Mountain Music, Feels So Right and If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band). But back in 1973, recalls singer Randy Owen, "I had heard about this place in Myrtle Beach that you could go play a whole summer. You could stay set up, you could write, you could do whatever you wanted to, as long as you entertained people, but you had to work for tips." Owen convinced the president of Jacksonville State University to let him graduate without walking, and he, cousins Cook and Teddy Gentry, and then-drummer John Vartanian set out for a summer of late nights and long sets. "We had to be telling jokes or playing music for the go-go girls to dance to," Cook says.

Jukebox in their minds: At The Bowery, the band made its best money from customers' requests. "That's why we had to rehearse so much," Owen says. "They'd request something by Lynyrd Skynyrd or Merle Haggard, any variety of artists. If we didn't know they songs, they wouldn't put money in the tip bucket. And, sometimes, if those guys had enough to drink or smoke, or whatever, they could put a hundred-dollar bill in the pot." Eventually, the guys developed a system to prioritize requests. "A dollar request means we put it on the list and we'll get to it," Cook says. "A five-dollar request means we'll do it right now. Ten dollars instant request, we'll stop in the middle of a song and start playing it."

Born country: The group, initially known as Young Country, played together for the first time in 1969, at a talent contest following a concert by country singer Jack Greene. "Teddy was the drummer," Cook says. "We had another cousin, Jackie Owen, who's the same kin to me that Randy is, playing bass. Right after that, he went into the army, and we put Teddy on bass and got John Vartanian." (The band has had a series of drummers over the years, with Mark Herndon playing with them the longest.) The prize for winning was supposed to be $500 and a trip to the Grand Ole Opry, but "the turnout wasn't exactly what they expected, so what we got was gas money and tickets to the Opry," Cook says. "And my daddy drove us up there."

I'm in a hairy and don't know why: Years ago, when all the members of the band wore their hair shaggier, a rumor floated around that Owen actually wore a wig. One night, a woman jumped onstage, determined to test the story's veracity. "She got her handful of hair," Owen says. "Boy, I'm telling you, it really hurt – it bled. She was determined to take my wig off my head."

Can't keep a good band down: Alabama played a farewell tour in 2003. "I think everybody felt we were through touring" at the time, Cook says. The group's members stayed active in music afterward: Owen as a solo act, Cook with his Allstar Goodtime Band and Gentry as a producer and with his band Rockit City. Now, the reassembled band has dates scheduled into November, plus a Caribbean tour in October. Says Cook: "A lot of loyal fans are glad to see us back on the road for a time."

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

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