Alabama: A Tale of Two Tributes


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And while Alabama & Friends was cut closely with Alabama (the band themselves providing backing on most songs and contributing two originals), High Cotton was the brainchild of executive producer Logan Rogers, who got the idea after hearing Isbell play “Love In The First Degree” while on tour with Ryan Adams.

“I love Alabama, and not in a way that is tongue-in-cheek or ironic,” says Rogers, “and when that happened it occurred to me that there are a lot of cool artists that are big fans of Alabama, too, and it might be fun to give them a second look.” Both tribute albums are equally important – Alabama & Friends for placing the band back on the radar of the mainstream country fan and reinforcing their booming melodies, and High Cotton for showcasing the versatility of the lyrics and cadre of influences (bluegrass, gospel) that now similarly mingle on so many of the current Americana and rock records. High Cotton shows that Alabama is, well, hip.

Perhaps the most disarming song on either LP is Jessica Lea Mayfield’s cover of “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why”), which manages to take one of the band’s most raucous, all-out hand-clappers and deconstructs it into an eerie, slow burning piece that finds a sense of (totally au courant) sadness among the sing-along crowd pleaser. “The lyrics of that song always had a double meaning to me,’ says Mayfield, a lifelong Alabama fan who recalls a video of her as a young toddler, dancing around in a diaper to “Dixieland Delight.” “Alabama is a tight band with great harmonies, immaculate sounding recordings, and songwriting that is so great, the first time you hear an Alabama song, you’re singing along before it’s over,” she says. “That’s how you know a song is good, when you don’t even know how it goes and you want to sing along.”

Mayfield clued into that innate catchiness that Alabama was able to capture; that unique ability to rile a crowd into chanting the lyrics as if they wrote them themselves. But she also honed in on the less overt nuances of their songcraft. “I’m proud that I wrote what I wrote, because every song mattered to me as a person,” Owen says. “I don’t know what a bridge on a song is. And I don’t know how to read music. But I know how to read an audience.”

And while they were clearly beloved by their followers, Music Row didn’t instantly warm up to the band – most labels rejected them until they landed on RCA (who actually only signed them after rejecting them first). Time hasn’t cured all wounds, though. “Life is fun, and it’s all good, but it hurt at the time,” Owen says, sighing. “The establishment hated us and the fans loved us. And as years went by, and they all started making a lot of money, then they started to like us more,” he laughs.

It’s with the business side of music where Owen places most of the blame he might pick with current country trends – certainly not on any of the artists themselves. “The mainstream country chart, I don’t even know what that is,” he says. “Some of it sounds country with steel guitars and banjo, but they mostly sound like they’re taking a sample of it rather than having a real banjo. So much of it has to do with who is running the record companies in Nashville. They really aren’t country music fans at all, they are just fans of money.”

Of course, most of those money-making artists appear on Alabama & Friends, and it would be easy to assume that there might be some kind of rivalry between the two tribute records, particularly on behalf of High Cotton toward the establishment acts. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.


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