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‘Mountain Music’ man

Photo by David McClister
Photo by David McClister

Alabama frontman talks about old music, new music and a life well lived

By Allison Griffin

Just after noon on a chilly Friday, Randy Owen strides into Beverly’s Country Cafe, a gas station/eatery/gathering place in tiny Adamsburg, an unincorporated area not far from picturesque Little River Canyon. The lunch crowd today is pleased to see Owen and greets him accordingly, but not because he’s the frontman of Alabama, one of the most successful groups in country music history: The folks hadn’t seen him in several days, and wanted to know what he was up to.

He fills them in: He spent a few days as one of several country music performers on a Caribbean cruise, where he got to catch up with old musician buddies like Bobby Bare and Johnny Lee. A lifelong cattle farmer, he also traveled to Texas to see hereford and angus cattle shows. And while out in Texas, he and his wife of 40 years, Kelly, attended the funeral of a very close friend, whose death was unexpected.

Grief hangs over him like a dark cloud, the pain compounded by a difficult plane trip home that has left him emotionally spent. Still, he is polite and gracious to his neighbors and visitors who approach him; he’s always been approachable and kind to fans, Kelly says.

Eager for distraction, he takes time to show three out-of-towners who just happened to stop for lunch at Beverly’s (one a former state legislator, all of them awed to meet the superstar singer in such an unexpected place) a series of newspaper clippings taped to the walls. The yellowed pages from the DeKalb Advertiser are full of photos that document an Owen family reunion from years ago. Owen points out cousins Joanne and Bennie, Uncle Johnny and Paw Paw, clearly proud that so many of his kinfolk call northeast Alabama home.

Along with the clippings, memorabilia from Alabama’s 1980s heyday cover the walls: handheld fans that cooled the crowds at the band’s legendary June Jam festivals of long ago, along with the band’s classic album covers and posters of Owen and bandmates Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook smiling, having fun and living it up.

“There’s been a lot of great moments in my life,” Owen says at the office of his cattle ranch, Tennessee River Music, which sits just behind his home at his Lookout Mountain boyhood family farm. “I didn’t realize it then. I probably don’t realize it now. After this weekend, it’s kind of like, everything’s a plus, just being alive.”

Being grateful

Those great moments in his life include those closest to his heart – his and Kelly’s three children, Alison, Heath and Randa, and four grandchildren. And there are all those awards that Alabama won over the years, among them eight country music “Entertainer of the Year” honors, two Grammys, two People’s Choice Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Pretty good for three cousins who grew up poor, working on their family’s farms, and who cut their teeth working for tips as a bar band in South Carolina.

But those years were crucial to the band’s later success, Owen says. “You learn to entertain people, which is the hardest part,” he says. “A lot of people can sing. Not a lot of people learn how to work their way through a hostile crowd.”

Those were the lean years, before the band signed a contract with RCA Records in 1980, which launched a career that includes 21 gold, platinum and multiplatinum albums and 43 No. 1 singles.

“When you get through it, you learn to be very grateful,” Owen says of the band’s success and how it affected them. “That’s the big part about it. You’re very grateful about what’s been accomplished, and what you’ve been blessed with.”

Growing up country
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Photo by Phil Pyle

Owen is also grateful for the way he grew up, learning the value of hard work on the family farm. The hardscrabble way of life the cousins shared, coupled with an appreciation for the working man and the love of a family, is woven through some of the band’s most successful songs.

Owen grew up in a musical family; his dad taught him to play his first few chords, and his mother played piano (of his mom today, he says, “she still can really play”). His family also put a priority on education, and Owen could read and write by the time he went to school. But the students at the high school in Fort Payne looked down on the kids from the country, so most of the mountain children didn’t attend high school.

But Owen was encouraged by some kind teachers who saw potential (he calls them “heroes”). He eventually graduated from Fort Payne High School and went on to graduate from Jacksonville State University, where he is now a trustee.

A teacher at Jax State asked him to write a song for a school play, which took him about 30 minutes; the teacher expected him to need an entire semester. But he was already well into writing songs by then. In fact, by that time he’d already written a song that hadn’t yet been recorded.

He laughs at the memory of his college adviser when Owen told her he wanted to write songs as a career. “She was like, ‘uh huh.’ She said, ‘why don’t you sing me one of the songs you wrote?’ So I sang her ‘Feels So Right.’ When I left, she said she thought, ‘he’ll never amount to anything.’ She became a really close friend later on.”

New music

Owen seems eager to resume touring this year in support of Alabama’s new music.

“Southern Drawl,” released in September 2015, is the band’s first all-new studio album since 2001. It has a familiar Alabama mix, though its sound has a more modern twist: An almost rock ’n’ roll title track about how “life sounds better with a Southern drawl;” a bit of humor with “Hillbilly Wins the Lotto Money;” an ode to the hard-working “American Farmer;” and tender, sweet ballads, including “Come Find Me,” featuring Alison Krauss, and the touching final track, “I Wanna Be There,” about a father who looks forward to seeing his little girl grow up.

It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top Country Album charts.

The fellows have played a few concerts since its release, but will kick up the touring in 2016, including a date at Dothan’s Toadlick Music Festival on June 4. And Owen is ready to see the fans.

In fact, touring is his favorite part of the music business. “I like to make people feel,” he says, recalling a moment from a recent concert when he sang the hit song “Lady Down on Love.” As he sang the lyrics he penned decades ago about a woman who would gladly trade freedom to have the love of her man, he looked out about 30 feet into the crowd to see a fan with tears in her eyes.

That connection took him back to the early 1980s when the band was just getting going. Making the rounds of a bar where the group was playing that evening, Owen asked a table of women what brought them out. They said they were celebrating the divorce of their friend, who was clearly not happy about the breakup. Owen asked the woman about it, and she said, “I’d rather be at home with my husband and be in love.”

“So then she said the line that got me started, ‘This is the first time I’ve been out since I was 18.’ So I wrote that baby down. I went back to my room and wrote that sucker that night.”

Owen has written his share of hits over the years – “Lady Down on Love,” “Mountain Music,” “My Home’s in Alabama” – but he’s been a collaborative writer on many more Alabama songs. He enjoys both processes, but says writing solo allows him freedom to let a song mature.

“I prefer to have the time when you can just lay your heart out, when it just rips it apart, whether it’s a love song, or a sad song, or a happy song,” he says. “You just lay it out there, and nobody can say it exactly the way you feel it.”

 

Funny stories, famous friends

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After nearly 40 years in the music business, Randy Owen could fill a book with the stories of celebrities he’s known. He recounted a few of those stories to the delight of some Alabama Living staffers during a recent interview.“One of the things I treasure is getting to meet (R&B singer and Alabama native) Percy Sledge before he passed away, and he recorded a couple of songs that I wrote. … He was one of the kindest people. I still have his message recorded when he wasn’t feeling well.”

(During Alabama’s heyday,) “I’d heard Bob Seger had the best sound system there was, so I flew to Memphis to see him. And it was, it was rockin’. So I told our management, ‘I want that sound system.’ So the next show we did, we had that sound system. I hope Bob’s not mad about it. I’ve seen him several times since then, and he’s OK.”

In years past, the band would hold an annual Christmas party at the Alabama museum in Fort Payne. “The guy that promoted most of our first concerts was the late Keith Fowler, a wonderful friend. He had close friends (connected) with NASCAR. (One year, NASCAR legend) Dale Earnhardt drove a bus down to the Christmas party! I asked Keith, where is his CDL? He said, ‘Earnhardt don’t need no CDL.’ I said to myself, you know, he’s probably right.”

June Jam memories

The band’s annual June Jam drew tens of thousands of fans to northeast Alabama to hear some of country music’s hottest acts from the 1980s into the early 1990s. Several of Alabama’s celebrity friends would come for the music and the parade and softball game associated with it. “I remember (former Chicago Bears linebacker) Dick Butkus practicing chip shots in the sand. Everybody would whisper when they went by, like they were at the golf course.”

“Then we had (legendary NASCAR driver and car owner) Bobby Allison come for a parade we had. He was driving one of his antique Buicks, I believe. He exits (the main highway) and the car stops, so a kindly neighbor pulls over and is like, ‘Sir, can I help you?’ He says, ‘Well, my car quit.’ (The neighbor says,) ‘Damn, you look like Bobby Allison. You are Bobby Allison! You can’t fix your car?’”