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Local History

Music at the Fair

 Springfield (Mo.) Leader & Press, August 4, 1981, 4 B.

Alabama Gears Show to Crowd

"Randy Owen knows what it's like to be nowhere. Just a year ago he was playing Top 40 country for tips in a bar in Myrtle Beach, S.C, along with his cousins, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry, and drummer Mark Herndon. They called themselves Alabama.

"'I did get discouraged. We all did. But you just handle it. I mean, I'm still here, aren't I? That means something. But it is such a bummer to get up in a bar and do songs that somebody else has already done. We were so into doing something different, into doing our own music,' Owen said.

"Owen is serious and friendly offstage with a determined, direct gaze. Onstage, he's the one who hops around, makes jokes and makes the audience feel as if the Ozark Empire Fair on a sweltering Monday afternoon is the most important concert Alabama has ever performed. In a sense it is.

"The 5,000 people who jammed the grandstand were, after all, among those who bought Alabama's two gold (500,000 copies sold) albums this year. Only about a year ago, Alabama was just another bar band but this year they have soared to the top of the country charts with songs such as 'Why Lady Why,' 'Feels So Right', 'My Home's In Alabama', 'There's An Old Flame Burning In Your Eyes', and 'Tennessee River'.

"A strong feel for what their audience wants to hear and the determination to keep writing and performing their own material have helped Alabama become one of the hottest country groups in the country this summer. 'We try to play what is best for the audience, what is best for the whole group. We're real into making the audience be more active and making them be part of the show,' Owen said, after turning in a 90 minute performance which brought most of the members of the audience to their feet looking for an encore.

"Alabama's long stint on the bar circuit, which began in 1969, has helped the group learn how to do what it takes to please the audience. 'The average person wants to hear what they have heard on the radio. Even though you want to do only your own material, you can't be hard-nosed about it and just say, 'To hell with you all.'' Owen said. After a while, however, Alabama hit upon a plan which paid the rent and allowed them to perform mostly their own songs. 'Finally, we got into a bar that let us play just for tips. See, all they wanted to do was get a lot of people in there and sell them a lot of beer, and they didn't really care what we did. So we could do a lot of our own material,' Owen said. 'We had playing for tips down to an art,' he chuckled, as he recalled the recent lean years.

"'Like, we'd say, 'If you'll give us $10, we'll play this song backwards.' Somebody would give us the money and then we'd all just turn around with our backs to the audience and play the song. I used to stand on my head and play,' he said. 'We'd have people come up and ask us to do all kinds of things. It really just depended on how high they got,' he said.

"Those high-tip bar antics have translated themselves into a funny, down-home stage show which highlights the band's considerable skill and complete lack of pretension. For example, when was the last time you saw a lead guitarist play a long, mournful Southern rock solo with his teeth? Jeff Cook was the star of the encore with that trick. Then there's the Alabama Twister when the three singers play each other's instruments in a hopeless tangle of arms, legs, guitar necks, electrical chords and sweaty hair.

"Alabama's sound frankly has more to do with the Allman Brothers than with Ferlin Husky, but they are able to balance their rock and roll instrumentation with strong, vocal harmonies that would do them up proud at any southern gospel sing. Alabama's sound has been influenced by The Beatles, Hank Williams, Bob Seger, Ronnie Millsap and the sound of those old southern spirituals which are driven into the heart of any child who goes to church in the south.

"Owen, lead singer and guitarist, grew up in rural Alabama with his cousin Jeff Cook, the virtuoso of the group who sings, plays a double necked guitar, the fiddle and the keyboards. They teamed up their bass playing cousin Teddy Gentry, moved to Anniston, Ala., and paid the rent by laying carpet and working for the government. But at night, when they weren't working the bars, the three cousins constantly practiced the smooth, elaborate harmonies that set this group apart from most others. Eventually, Mark Herndon replaced the first drummer and after nearly a decade of bar jobs, Alabama hit the charts, hard.

"After the early Alabama concert Monday, about 800 people stood in line in the hot sun, waiting for an autograph, a kind word or a kiss. 'How many lips did you kiss today?' someone asked Owen after the show. 'I don't know,' he said with a sly grin, 'Not enough.'"

Alabama went on to become one of the most popular bands in country music history. They have sold over 73 million records and were named the 1980s Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music. The band retired in 2004 but recently announced a new album and comeback tour for 2012. For a DVD of their hits, click here. The Library also has 16 Biggest Hits and Greatest Hits Volume II available on CD. For more information about past fairs see the Library Center information file, Ozark Empire Fair, Springfield, Mo. The image above is from this file.

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