Alabama’s Mortal Sounds
By Drew BratcherMay 28, 2019
My father was from Cincinnati. He was big into classic rock, but even more than that, he was committed to Reds baseball. He worshipped Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench, and it strikes me now that the scruffy beauty that marked the on-field play of the Big Red Machine was, in some odd way, characteristic of his favorite bands, too.
He loved raunchy guitars, three-part harmony, hair. Let It Be–era Beatles, to be sure, but also Journey, Steely Dan, The Moody Blues. On Side A of my father’s life was Kansas’s “Carry On Wayward Son,” on Side B a four-minute Steven Stills guitar solo. His tastes were hardly highbrow, but his disdain for country music did have a latent cooler-than-thou about it. Unlike my mother, who had come of age in the hills north of Nashville, he was from the city, not the back porch. Did he even own a pair of blue jeans? To him, honkytonks and hay bales signified some fusty combination of the backward and the absurd. If he ever “drowned his troubles,” which is not a phrase I ever heard him utter, it was in work rather than the outlets endorsed in country songs: whiskey, women, the road.
Alabama, come to think of it, may have been the one country band he could stomach. Aesthetically at least, the path leading from Alabama to REO Speedwagon was straighter than, say, the path leading to Ernest Tubb. For starters, Alabama was a country band at a time when country bands tended to be stage props for solo acts — sideshows, in other words, to the main event.
In Nashville, if not in London and Los Angeles, the specter of the lonely troubadour still loomed. Sure, George Jones had a band, and Loretta Lynn did too, but when you thought of those performers you didn’t think about the band, the members of which tended to be loose configurations of available players. They were rarely if ever pictured on album covers, let alone listed on marquees.
Country singers were roving gamblers (Kenny Rogers), runaway outlaws (Willie Nelson), tipsy jokesters (Roger Miller), highway vagabonds (Hank Snow), fed-up wives (Melba Montgomery). Sure, there was the occasional duo, but these tended to be siblings or spouses — in any case, opposing forces working out their differences in tandem. Country songs were a function of individuation. Country bands, on the other hand, eschewed the idiosyncratic in favor of something simultaneously more accessible and abstract, a dynamic that had been largely anathema to country music before Alabama.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, folk-inspired songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris had made intricate lyrics about the diamond absolutes a calling card of Nashville country. They paid deference to Bob Dylan, Kitty Wells, Camus. They cordoned off a corner for hippies in the honkytonk. With Alabama, however, lyrical derring-do and emotional complexity made way for mass appeal. Tone poems about rural poverty and romantic bankruptcy gave way to drum-driven, big-hook anthems. Alabama was more interested in making hits than making statements, and no country band ever made more hits.
All told, Alabama sent 33 singles to the top of the country charts. To date, they have sold more than 70 million records. With their roisterous fiddle solos and Queen-style drum patterns, songs like “Tennessee River,” “Dixieland Delight,” and “Mountain Music” crossed over to pop radio. Alabama played The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. They got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1989, the Academy of Country Music named them the artist of the decade.
Among the hallmarks of Alabama’s drolly adrenal brand of country rock was an overt sensuality cribbed from disco and Muscle Shoals–style R&B. There’s a reason why Brad Paisley called his 2011 hit about making out in cars “Old Alabama.” No country act since Conway Twitty had sung so much about sex:
I got something cooking
And I’m boiling way down deep
While I’m hot and bothered
Why don’t you give me what I need
— “Get It While It’s Hot,” 1977
I want to come over
I want to love you tonight
I don’t care about the time
or who’s wrong or who’s right
— “I Wanna Come Over,” 1979
Your body feels so gentle
and my passion rises high
You’re loving me so easy
Your wish is my command
— “Feels So Right,” 1981
The lyrics, it must be said, read a lot more lurid than they sound. Whether singing about cheating or watching baseball from the bleachers, Randy Owen, Alabama’s log-stiff, lumberjack-looking front man, performed in the same husky, northern Alabama brogue. His talent was to make vulnerability seem invulnerable, carnality as anodyne as changing the oil in your car. He really could have been singing about anything. If Owen was able to chip away at certain Nashville taboos, it may have been because nobody really noticed.
In later years, Owen would record traditional gospel albums and give homage to country troubadours of old, and yet his legacy, at least in part, has to do with jettisoning guilt, which is to say existential struggle, from heartbreak music. In this way, Alabama departed from country’s Golden Age pantheon, for whom the tension between flesh and spirit, the stage and the confession booth, was vitally generative. The boys ushered Reagan-era narcissism into the mainstream. There was a nose-candy blear to their Panglossian MO.
For every foray into pop rock, however, Alabama was careful to give a nod to the country crowd. In “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas,” a number-one song from 1984, Owen and company seek a kind of forgiveness for losing touch with their roots, only to prove themselves keen students of Cajun music and Western swing. Jeff Cook’s fiddle solo, which comes sawing through the drumbeat at the 3:30 mark, references the Texas Playboys and Doug Kershaw while also nodding to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
Even at their most traditional, Alabama projected a contradictory breeziness. In “Jukebox in My Mind,” a number-one song from 1990, Owen likens heartache to an indwelling jukebox that dispenses painful memories at inauspicious times. Lyrically, the song is an interesting inversion of the Porter Wagoner classic “Turn the Jukebox Up Louder,” in which the narrator finds balm for his heartache in a rollicking country bar. The problem is that you can’t really imagine “Jukebox in My Mind” coming out of a jukebox. The slick harmonies and pungent drums water down the double shot. Plugged in, glossed up, and swelled to arena size, honkytonk music becomes inconceivable.
In a certain light, Alabama seemed versatile, while in another, they came across as disingenuous. Like the Eagles and the other Southern rock outfits after which they fashioned themselves, the band projected machismo on album covers and merch. Their official logo — a bulgy metallic rendering of the word Alabama — was the stuff of belt buckles and pickup truck grills. The other insignia with which they were synonymous was the Stars and Bars, an association from which, like Tom Petty and Lynyrd Skynyrd, they later distanced themselves.
If, at root, Alabama’s music was about sex and making music, their branding oozed white Southern pride. Occasionally the two came together. “And just like the South, girl,” Owen sings on “See the Embers, Feel the Flame,” as if providing the soundtrack to a postbellum bodice ripper, “we’re gonna rise again.”
I doubt my father had such lyrics in mind when he bought tickets to see Alabama on the night I was conceived. He may not have had any lyrics in mind at all. If my math is correct, the show would have taken place around my parents’ first anniversary. It’s possible that it was only the most convenient way of marking a year of marriage — an outing within striking distance (I think it took place at the fairgrounds downtown) that was nevertheless far enough out of their comfort zone to feel significant. Not predictable and not spontaneous either, it was the kind of date my mother, who has lived most of her life within a 10-mile radius of Nashville, would have appreciated.
Were they trying to get pregnant? Were they in their right minds? Alabama concerts, I gather, could be bacchanals. Just by breathing the ambient fumes, it’s likely that my parents, teetotalers both, would have gotten a little buzzed. At the time, they were living in a rental house on Hollywood Street, behind Ace Hardware. She taught kindergarten; he was working at a bank during the day, taking law-school classes in the evenings. If, in some ways, an Alabama concert seems like the unlikeliest place to imagine my parents, it may be that, after a year of trying to make a life together, the experience of listening to music in a big sea of people was what they needed to keep going. If so, they could hardly have chosen a better band than Alabama — a group whose music promised, more than empathy, more than catharsis, pure boot-stomping escapism, with a moderated Southern drawl.
By the time I became cognizant of country music, around the age of four or five, Alabama’s once-indomitable sound had begun to give way to a new wave of singer-songwriters and rootsy traditionalists: Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Dan Seals. As much as idiosyncratic albums such as Cash’s King’s Record Shop (1987) and Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986) were a rejection of Alabama’s everything-to-everybody approach, they also certified the band as a lingering force. The truth is that Alabama’s music had settled into the ether; by and by, their arena-country shtick had become as indispensable to country music as Hank Williams’s moan and Dolly Parton’s wigs. Country bands from the Dixie Chicks to Florida Georgia Line owe them a debt of gratitude.
But what, if anything, do I owe Alabama? It’s not as if the muffled lyrics in my parents’ heads somehow worked their way into my DNA. Music doesn’t have anything to do with the fusion of gametes. And yet such fusion is made possible, in part, by feeling — and the feeling, on that night at least, was influenced, perhaps even inspired, by Alabama’s high-flying country pop.
In “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” the poet Galway Kinnell writes about his son’s predilection for walking in on his parents. “[H]abit of memory,” Kinnell writes, draws the child back “to the ground of his making.” Was it habit of memory or something more superficial that led me to buy a ticket to see Alabama in concert when I was in college? The band, I learned from a poster in the student center, was playing the basketball arena right across the parking lot from my dorm. It was their farewell tour (they’ve since mounted a couple more). If I didn’t go, would I ever again have the chance?
Go I did, but I did not stay for long. Alabama just wasn’t my band, even though, to hear my father tell it, they’d been with me from the start. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little disloyal, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit relieved. I walked back to the dorm in apparent silence, but silence, of course, is what the music fills. The jukebox in my mind skipped back and forth between “Mountain Music” and “Tennessee River” and “Feels So Right.” The mortal sounds, however indelible, are not nearly as catchy as country songs.
Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his MFA from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.
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