Alabama: A Tale of Two Tributes

Amanda Shires

Videos by American Songwriter

Amanda Shires

“Alabama’s music has brought so many people together, it’s ironic that there would be anything divisive about paying tribute to them,” says Secor. “The fact that there are two tributes to Alabama just shows the far reaching impact the band had on a generation.”

“You ever go to one of those ‘mainstream’ shows”? asks Snider, who sang “Feels So Right” with Elizabeth Cook, that shows a more nuanced side of both the toking East Nashville folk artist and the track itself. “They bring joy to a lot of people with song. If there’s a wrong way to do that, then god help us all.”

In fact, sentiments about the band are pretty universal on both sides of the coin.  “When we think of Alabama, we think country music,” says Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, who recorded Alabama & Friends’ version of “I’m In A Hurry,” in a much more straightforward approach than Mayfield.  “Alabama is country music,” echoes Secor, with a strong emphasis on the “is.” Old Crow had been playing the cover of “Dixieland Delight” that appears on High Cotton live for about five years, as a full-out string assault.

It’s songs like “Dixieland Delight” where it is most clear that Alabama is not country as we currently know it – a world where the biggest Nashville hits could easily be mistaken for pop songs if they were sung with a slightly different accent. “Dixieland Delight” was a number one record, all while managing to be completely, inarguably southern, full of fiddles and twang and bluegrass veins. These days, some of Alabama’s songs might even be considered Americana.

Alabama & Friends doesn’t offer too much in the way of creative reinvention, but it does show the sheer power of how pervasive and embedded their music is in current artists, specifically through Jamey Johnson’s standout version of “My Home’s In Alabama.” This is because the song was the first one Johnson ever learned how to play, on his first guitar, back home in Montgomery. “I was invited to a thing of songwriters, and a guy I’d never seen before wanted to sing ‘My Home’s In Alabama,’” recalls Owen. “And he knew it better and sang it better than I did. That was Jamey Johnson. Years go by and it’s a wonderful thing to have a fellow Alabamian singing that song. That it’s him and his band playing makes it more southern.” He pauses, adding in a goofy drawl, “and more gooder.”

Like Alabama, Johnson’s a rebel, sitting outside of the country norm – but this time it’s the opposite way around. He’s too country. His music, influenced by Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, has had a hard time playing fiddle alongside those chart-topping pop-twang confections of Carrie Underwood or Swift. There’s always an underdog, but maybe the margin for the great ones to seep through has narrowed – those saloon doors of Music Row, they’re brick walls now. Only a certain kind of person gets a rope thrown over so they can climb their way to the top. It’s hard not to wonder if Alabama, if they emerged now instead of in the ’70s, would have been able to break through.

Rogers is not so sure. “I don’t think so. I think they would be more on the fringe of mainstream, but I don’t think their bluegrass and traditional elements would come through as much today,” he says. Mayfield agrees: “Perhaps not … or maybe I am just cynical.”  Leave it to Snider to see it in a different light. “I do,” he says. “If a pack of swarthy fuckers like that came along now playing like that, songs like that, they’d be, like, the next Alabama …”

Alabama’s still playing live – their current tour is titled Back To The Bowery to pay homage to The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they first began playing music as a band back in 1973 – and they set sail on a cruise with fans through the Caribbean in October. Owen and Cook have both survived cancer, and though they’ve been fairly quiet since their Farewell Tour ended in 2004, Owen seems reenergized about both the future of Alabama and country music in general.

“As long as there are people writing songs, real songs, and there are labels that will actually put them out, then country music is in good hands,” he says. “You gotta write what’s in your heart, the good and the bad.” Southern born, southern bred.


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