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Grand Prix of Alabama

Victory Lane is a festive area for winners and their teams. Photos by Albert Hicks
Victory Lane is a festive area for winners and their teams. Photo by Albert Hicks

Grand Prix of Alabama roars into Barber Motorsports Park

By David Haynes

Some of the best drivers and fastest race cars in the world are heading to Alabama for the seventh running of the Honda IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama on Sunday, April 24, at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham.

The racetrack, located near Leeds east of Birmingham, has 17 turns and 80 feet in elevation changes over its 2.38-mile length. Its tight turns through uphill and downhill sections, as well as the track’s relatively narrow 45-foot-wide ribbon of asphalt, guarantee fans exciting racing action as drivers must take full advantage of their race cars’ extreme power as well as their passing skills to be successful here.

The weekend at Barber will host a slate of 11 races over three days, beginning Friday, April 22, and concluding with the Sunday, April 24, Grand Prix of Alabama, a 90-lap race that is the first major event for Barber’s 2016 racing season.

The Barber race will be the fourth stop in a 16-race season for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series, which is anchored by the historic 100th running of its namesake Indianapolis 500 May 29, renowned as one of the premiere events in all of motorsports.

A full weekend of racing

The IndyCar Series showcases the fastest cars and the most versatile drivers in the world. The series began March 13 in St. Petersburg, Fla., and wraps up Sept. 18 at Sonoma Raceway in California, where the Series Champion points leader will be awarded the Astor Cup Trophy.

Races in this unique series are held on a variety of tracks, including closed circuits like the Barber track, oval speedways, permanent road and temporary street courses. These race car engines output up to 700 horsepower, rev up to an ear-piercing 12,000 RPM and are among the fastest race cars in the world, capable of speeds up to 250 mph.

In addition to Sunday’s main event IndyCar Series race at Barber, the weekend of racing will also include Indy Lights, USF2000 and World Challenge Sports Car Series races on Friday and Saturday. Sunday’s racing will begin with the Legacy IndyLights race just before the IndyCar Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

In between watching the world-class auto racing, fans attending the Grand Prix of Alabama weekend can take advantage of a variety of other entertainment in the “Fan Zone” area, including a wine festival, ferris wheel, IndyCar autograph sessions, “Kid Zone” inflatable slides and other family-oriented activities. There will also be a wide array of food and souvenir vendors all weekend.

The Grand Prix of Alabama weekend has historically drawn the most fans each year of any event at Barber Motorsports Park, which is also home to the largest motorcycle collection in the world at the adjacent Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

Last year’s Grand Prix of Alabama weekend attendance was approximately 80,000 and generated an estimated $33 million for the Birmingham economy, making it one of the area’s premiere events in terms of economic impact.

The entire Barber Motorsports Park campus covers 830 acres of landscaped and groomed grounds and is recognized internationally as an iconic, state-of-the-art motorsports destination. Other major events this year include the Barber Historics (vintage sports cars) in May; SuperBike Challenge (motorcycle racing) in June; and the Barber Vintage Festival (vintage motorcycles) in October. The facility also plays host to more than 100 smaller private events each year, and its track facilities are used by manufacturers to test new motorcycles and high-performance cars. It is also home to a Porsche Sport Driving School.

Last year a new pedestrian bridge opened that allows spectators to walk from the 4-story-high museum across to the racetrack infield. The unique bridge has a glass bottom floor, allowing users to view the racetrack beneath their feet (though typically not during a race).

The museum itself – which displays vintage motorcycles and sports cars – had 144,000 square feet of display space when it opened in spring 2003. A major new addition now under construction will add another 77,000 square feet. The Barber motorcycle collection includes more than 1,400 vintage motorcycles, each of which is in running/operating condition, and of these approximately 700 are on display at any one time.

| See picture gallery here |

For the upcoming Grand Prix of Alabama events, ticket prices range from a $15 general admission ticket for Friday only to $69 for a general admission ticket to all three days’ events. Sunday general admission ticket is $39. Children 15 years old or younger may attend for free if accompanied by a ticketed adult.

On-site parking is free Friday and Saturday, but parking within the motorsports park campus on Sunday requires a $25 premium parking pass ($10 for motorcycles). Spectators who choose to park for free off-site Sunday can access free shuttle rides to the race sites.

Other ticketing options include VIP packages that allow access to restricted areas and museum passes, and garage access passes for prices ranging from $50 to $175. Children accompanied by a ticketed adult will have free access to the garage area, where they are encouraged to bring their autograph pens. Camping, food and drink service passes are also available in various other packages priced up to $435.

For additional information, race schedules or to purchase tickets, visit the Barber Motorsports website at https://www.barbermotorsports.com/higpa-home.php.

Outdoors: Best of the Best

A competitor watches for a quail to flush during the 2016 United Field Trialers Association National Field Trials, held on his property near Section.
A competitor watches for a quail to flush during the 2016 United Field Trialers Association National Field Trials, held on his property near Section.

Alabama hosts ‘Super Bowl’ for bird dogs and handlers

The small northeastern Alabama town of Section, population 800, nearly doubled in size as the best bird dogs in the nation and their handlers competed in the National Field Trials, held Feb. 13-20 on the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve.

Dubbed the “Super Bowl of bird dog handling,” the National Field Trials pitted nearly 600 dogs and their handlers in events simulating bird hunting. Each team needed to find three birds in a designated field measuring about 10 to 12 acres in less than 15 minutes. Each time the shooter missed a bird, the judge deducted points.

One of the dogs in the competition displaying her excitement after retrieving a quail.
One of the dogs in the competition displaying her excitement after retrieving a quail.

“We designed the events to simulate actual hunting as much as possible,” says Frank Arnau, former president of the ruling United Field Trialer’s Association. “The dog and handler must work as a team. The dog has to find and point the bird. The person has to shoot it.”

Teams competed in such categories as flushing or pointing. Each team competes twice in an event. Judges total the times and scores for each run.

“Scoring is based upon how the competitors and their dogs perform, not on a judge’s opinion,” says Clay Moose, UFTA president and a three-time national champion dog handler. “Pointing dogs have to maintain a point for three seconds before they can act on the bird. In the flushing division, the dog makes the bird fly, the handler harvests it and then gets the retrieve.”

Before each scoring “run,” event staffers released three pen-raised bobwhite quail into a field marked off with boundary flags. To keep everything honest, competitors sat in windowless sheds until the bird handler left the field. Then, the human-dog team waited for the signal to begin. As they began, the judge followed the action on an all-terrain vehicle, staying safely out of the way while scoring the run.

For the first run of the day, the bird handler released four quail instead of three. Throughout the day, some birds fly or run out of bounds. A few birds elude the dogs. Competitors sometimes miss birds. Therefore, a field may contain more than three quail at any given time.

“A good run is anything between four and seven minutes,” Moose says. “The best pointing dog had a total time of six minutes and 47 seconds after two runs.

Moose hopes to encourage more interest in the sport, especially among young people and women.

“It’s a great sport and we need to get some more youths involved. We want to encourage people to come out to our events to observe and get involved. This year, 36 women and 20 youths competed in events.”

For the competition, event staffers released about 6,500 birds. Jeff Ferguson, owner of the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve, released another 3,500 so competitors could practice before the competition began. Some birds survived. People spotted a few quail walking through underbrush bordering the competition fields the day after the event ended. The rest went to good causes.

“We donated the birds that the competitors shot to several charities,” Ferguson says. “Some of them held wild game dinners as fundraisers. We also gave a lot of birds to any local people who wanted to eat them.”

Competitors came from across the country

To earn a place at the Nationals, every dog and competitor needed to qualify through a series of events held throughout the year. At each event, teams accumulated points based upon how well they and their dog did. The UFTA totals the highest points of the best 10 events for each person to determine the yearly points champion.

The AFTA held the Nationals in Alabama for nine years in a row, the last two at the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve. Before that, they spent seven years at the Doublehead Resort in Town Creek.

“It’s a great honor for our preserve to be picked for the second year in a row,” Ferguson says. “We have a great facility here to put on such an event. The fields are close. We have lodging and a great conference center where people can gather. I really appreciate the help we received from Snead Agricultural Equipment in Fort Payne and Boykin Tractor in Rainsville. Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative also provided a lot of support for two years straight. I especially want to thank Mayor Nick Jones of Rainsville for all his support during the last two years.”

At the 2016 event, people came from all across the nation to compete. Some came from as far away as Colorado, Minnesota and Canada. Although the actual trials lasted one week, many people stayed for two weeks. Many came early to acclimate themselves and their dogs to Alabama weather and get in some practice.

“Jeff has been phenomenal in accommodating us,” Moose said. “We love it down here. The people are great. Everyone here welcomed us. Many local people came out to watch the competition.”

When such a large group visits a small town like Section, they make a considerable economic impact. Although some visitors brought their own recreational vehicles for sleeping, others needed lodging. They all needed fuel, supplies and food for themselves and their animals. Many whole families came.

“It’s a lot of extra work to keep the fields in shape and hold such an event, but it was all worth it,” Ferguson said.

For more information on the UFTA, see ufta-online.com. For more information on the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve, call Ferguson at 256-638-7014 or see northeastalhuntingpreserve.com.

The national champions from the 2016 United Field Trialers Association National Field Trials show off their trophies. From left to right, Marlene Sipes of Esmont, Va., Randy Brown of Pelham, N.C., Nick Scheutzow of Wadsworth, Ohio, Eddie Karban of Valley City, Ohio, Lauren Tarquinio of Coal Center, Pa., Matt Behe of Reidsville, N.C. and Ryan Miller of Wakeman, Ohio.
The national champions from the 2016 United Field Trialers Association National Field Trials show off their trophies. From left to right, Marlene Sipes of Esmont, Va., Randy Brown of Pelham, N.C., Nick Scheutzow of Wadsworth, Ohio, Eddie Karban of Valley City, Ohio, Lauren Tarquinio of Coal Center, Pa., Matt Behe of Reidsville, N.C. and Ryan Miller of Wakeman, Ohio.

JOHN FELSHER 2014

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com

Gardens: Starting seeds

GARDENING1645
Photo by Katie Jackson

Now’s the time to start seeding for the season

By Katie Jackson

April heralds the start of the “serious” gardening season, which means it’s time to get serious about planting those late spring and summer annuals (and some perennials) that will grace our tables with food and flowers.

But should we be planting seeds or seedlings? The answer is some of both, but starting from seed offers a number of advantages.

Seedling transplants, also called “starts,” are in abundant supply at local garden centers these days and are often the easiest, most sure-fired way to get many plants, both edible and ornamental, to succeed. However, if you want to grow less mainstream varieties, such as heirloom plants, or want to save a little money, planting from seed is a great option. The key to seed success is getting those seeds started off right.

By now, soil and air temperatures are warm enough to plant many vegetables and flowers directly in the garden, a practice called direct seeding, which is often ideal for large-seeded plants such as squash, peas and melons as well as such flowers as sunflowers and marigolds. Certainly, even small-seeded plants like tomatoes, peppers and a number of other herbs and flowers can be sown directly into well-prepared beds. But giving many plants a leg up by starting them in containers often helps.

Start with the correct growing container

Start your own seedling nursery by choosing some appropriate growing containers such as peat pots or reusable seed-starting trays or even repurposed items like paper cups, slated wooden boxes, small pots or yogurt, milk and egg cartons. Any container that is at least a couple of inches deep and has drainage holes in the bottom will do, though repurposed containers should be thoroughly washed and disinfected in a diluted bleach solution (nine parts water to one part bleach) before they are used.

Aside from the seeds, the most important ingredient for seed-starting success is a high-quality growing media. Do not use yard or garden soil as it may contain pathogens or pests that can harm sprouting plants. Instead, use a sterile media such as prepackaged seed-starting mixes or a homemade media of equal parts peat moss, vermiculite and perlite.

The most important ingredient for successful seeding is high-quality growing media. Photos by Katie Jackson
The most important ingredient for successful seeding is high-quality growing media. Photos by Katie Jackson

If you want to save a little money, planting from seed is a great option

Fill each container at least three-fourths full with the growing media (it often helps to wet the media before you put it in the containers, though make sure it is moist, not soggy). Press it in firmly into the containers to eliminate any air pockets then follow the recommended planting instructions found on each seed packet. Typically larger seeds are buried about two times deeper than their width while smaller seeds are sprinkled on top of the growing media then lightly covered with another thin layer of media.

Place the seed containers in a sunny spot (this time of year that can be indoors or out) that has good air circulation but is protected from harsh winds or hard rains. Water the containers lightly about once a week or when the top of the growing media is dry to the touch, but be careful not to overwater — soggy growing media can promote diseases or rot the seed. Once the seedlings emerge, apply a small dose of balanced liquid fertilizer to give them a little extra boost as they grow.

Most seedlings are ready to transplant when they have produced two to three “true” leaves (the first leaves that emerge are cotyledons or “seed leaves”; the second set and all thereafter are “true” leaves). Try to plant the seedlings in the garden late in the afternoon on a calm, overcast or cloudy day so they won’t be stressed by sun, heat or wind as they acclimate to their new surroundings.

If you direct-seed into the garden, make sure your beds are fully prepared and pre-moisten the soil before planting or water gently just after planting, then keep the soil moist (again, not too wet) until the new plants emerge. Applying a thin layer of mulch will help retain moisture around the seeds, though once seedlings begin to pop their heads up, make sure the mulch does not hinder their growth.

Whichever method you use, you may have to thin the new plants once they come up so they won’t be overcrowded, but you can move the extra seedlings to pots or to other spots in the garden if you can’t bring yourself to toss them out. And once those little darlings are up and thriving, you can take great pleasure in seeing your hand-raised garden grow.

April Tips

  •  Plant peas, Irish potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
  •  Sow seeds for beans, corn, squash, melons and other summer vegetable crops.
  •  Begin planting tomatoes, peppers and eggplants once the threat of a hard freeze is past.
  •  Weed garden beds.
  •  Fertilize warm-season lawns and plant new lawns.
  •  Plant summer annual flowers and summer-blooming bulbs.
  •  Prune spring-flowering shrubs such as spirea, flowering quince, azalea, jasmine and forsythia after they have bloomed.
  •  Clean dust from the leaves of indoor plants.
  •  Plant container-grown roses and keep an eye out for insect and disease problems on all roses.
  •  Start a new compost pile and turn the contents of existing ones.

JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.

Worth the drive: Top Hat

WTD_DALEPETTIT
Top Hat owner Dale Pettit tends the fire pit where 40 pork shoulders cook.

Hickory-cooked barbecue alive and well at the Top Hat

Story and photos by David Haynes

Drivers on U.S. Highway 31 through Blount Springs always know when Dale Pettit is cooking pork at the Top Hat BBQ. The blue-grey smoke that billows from his high chimneys hangs like a hickory-infused fog in this deep valley at the southernmost terminus of the Appalachian Mountains.

Depending on wind and weather conditions, the tempting aroma of slow-cooked pork can permeate the air for a mile or more in either direction, fairly begging travelers to stop at the renowned barbecue restaurant.

An iconic dining stop in North Alabama since first opening in 1952, the Top Hat has been in Pettit’s family since his father, Wilber, purchased it nearly a half century ago in 1967. And over those many years Pettit has learned a thing or two about cooking barbecue pork.

“If you ever find any fat on our barbecue, somebody’s going to be in trouble!”

On a recent morning, Pettit shared some of his methods as he tended a massive fire pit loaded with 40 pork shoulders of fresh pork.

As we talk, Pettit is busy monitoring his fire by alternating between squirting spritzes of water from a plastic bottle and shoveling ashes from a 5-gallon bucket as required to regulate the fire’s temperature and to put down flare-ups.

Pettit is very particular about cooking in his traditional way – using a wood fire of select green hickory and insisting on fresh pork from his suppliers. “These piggies were squealing just a few days ago,” he adds.

When I asked if he could share some of his techniques without giving away any proprietary secrets, he says he’s not worried because the way he cooks “would be too much work” for most people today.

Cooking with wood is key to flavor

He explains that each of his two fire pits can hold up to about 800 pounds of meat at a time. On the days he cooks he’s usually there by 4 a.m., waiting for the truck to deliver his meat at 5.

He’s purchased his hickory wood from the same supplier for years, noting the importance of the wood being consistently green from one batch to the next. It’s key to obtaining the trademark smoked flavor of Top Hat barbecue. Pettit says he goes through about a cord of wood every three weeks on average. The hickory arrives in whole two-foot-long cuts, so Pettit spends his early morning hours splitting it into uniform 8-inch-diameter pieces with a large maul.

To cook a batch of 40 pork shoulders takes about nine hours, after the fire is going properly. Add to this the time to build and start the fire, and the time to extinguish the fire and clean up afterwards, and the total for a cooking session goes to around 12 hours.

Each of his two fire pits is the same size and is used to cook on alternating days. Pettit designed and built the pits himself. He points out that the way these draw keeps the meat constantly surrounded by the swirls of smoke from the green hickory wood. Unlike many other barbecue chefs who use a rub to add seasoning and flavor to their meat before cooking, Pettit does not. “The hickory smoke is my rub,” he adds. He’s given permission to use his fire pit design to just two other BBQ places – one in Kentucky and another in California – but says those will be the last ones.

He says most barbecue chefs have gotten away from the wood-fired pits that must be constantly watched to regulate temperature. Today it would be easy to use an electrically-rotating rotisserie for the meat and an easily-regulated gas flame heat source, but Pettit believes those methods can’t match the flavor he gets with the traditional wood fire method.

Pettit is proud that the Top Hat was one of only two restaurants in Alabama to be recognized recently as the still serving traditional wood-cooked barbecue.

The Top Hat was also recently featured on The Cooking Channel’s Man Fire Food series, in an episode entitled “Pigging out on Pork.” Pettit says he was surprised to receive a call from a producer for the show from New York, who told him that the Top Hat’s name kept popping up from their viewers and they wanted to feature his restaurant. “They filmed for eight or nine hours and used about 20 minutes.” Archived episodes of that show were still airing in early 2016.

These days Pettit only cooks about three days per week. “I’ve been trying to retire for years, but haven’t had any luck yet.”

Fresh catfish another favorite

After more than six decades in the same location, the Top Hat isn’t just renowned for its barbecue pork. Longtime diners will also point out that their catfish platters are famous throughout the region for both flavor and portion size. Pettit says that the freshness of the catfish is key, adding that they never buy frozen fish. A large catfish platter contains two, full, 13-to-15-ounce fish.

Other unique offerings are the Thousand Island salad dressing, the recipe for which his father had to purchase separately from the previous owner. It originated in New York, Pettit says, at the Waldorf Astoria, but several years ago they changed the recipe to improve it. The Top Hat makes its own style of Ranch dressing using cooking buttermilk that yields a more buttery flavor. And, of course, they make their own distinctive barbecue sauce.

Even though the main dining area has undergone several remodels over the years, the cozy, dark-wood paneling and tree-trunk columns familiar to generations of diners there have been retained.

The Top Hat is located at Mile Marker 307 on U.S. 31. From Interstate 65 North, take the Blount Springs/Garden City Exit (287) and turn right at the ramp on U.S. 31. The Top Hat is approximately 4 miles on the left. From Interstate 65 South, take the Empire/Blount Springs Exit (289) and turn left on County Road 5 until it terminates at U.S. 31 and turn left. The Top Hat is about one-half mile on the left on U.S. 31.

Top Hat Barbecue
8725 U.S. 31
Hayden, AL 35079
256-352-9919
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Saturday

The gospel of greens

Greens_basket
Photo by Michael Cornelison

My grandmother was always cooking up a “mess of greens” (and homemade chow chow to go with them), and while I greedily gobbled up pretty much everything else that came out of her kitchen, whenever I heard the word “collards,” I made myself scarce.

Everyone else in the house would be lined up at the stove, fingers impatiently tapping their plates as they waited to get their serving of greens. I was as uninterested as they were excited. As far as I was concerned, cooked collards looked (and smelled) like the slimy stuff floating around the edges of my granddad’s catfish ponds. No, thanks.

Today, correctly cooked collard greens are near the top of my list of favorite things to eat, and I’ll sing their praises to anyone who’ll listen and try my best to convert non-greens eaters. My evangelism includes rattling off the positives that outweigh the one negative even I can’t ignore: the pungent, not-so-appetizing aroma they release during cooking. I point to their place in Southern food culture; their unique mineral, earthy flavor; the rich, fatty goodness they absorb and deliver so well; and their softness that’s not mushy but instead almost meaty, still holding up to a good chew or two.

But they don’t start out this way. While they look like lettuce, collard greens are not for salads. When raw, the veins branching out into the leaves are tough and sinewy. And non-cooked collards taste like bitter dirt (at least to me).

They have their own distinct flavors, but the same can be said for other “braising greens” like kale, turnip and mustard greens too, and they all benefit from the same cooking techniques, accompaniments and condiments, namely a low and slow method; some sort of fat and salt; and a dash of heat, sweet and/or tart.

All braising greens share something else: more than their fair share of valuable vitamins. Greens are low in calories, but high in vitamins A and C. Turnip greens are loaded with vitamin K.

But the faithful greens cooker’s (and eater’s) ultimate reward is potlikker, a liquid version of heaven. In case you’ve somehow escaped knowing what this is, potlikker is the vitamin-rich broth left over after slow-cooking greens (usually collards or turnip greens). The odd name is Southern-speak for pot liquor. You’ll also see it spelled as two words: Pot likker.

The next time you cook greens, don’t throw out the potlikker; use it as the base for comforting Potlikker Soup. If you’ve got leftover greens in their broth, start there. If you’ve just got the broth, add some fresh greens. If you don’t have either, you can cheat and create the potlikker at the same time you’re making the soup. (See the instructions for this further down the page) Just remember to save the broth next time you make greens, and you can put the soup together a little faster. (You won’t have to cook it as long to achieve its hallmark flavor.)

– Jennifer Kornegay

“Getting greens from your local farmers market or roadside stand means they’ll be fresher, tastier, and might even be cheaper than what you’d find at the grocery store.”


Cook of the Month

Growing up with a mom who freely admitted she didn’t like cooking, Sandy didn’t really know her way around a kitchen until she was an adult. Being diagnosed with Celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to react to ingested gluten) forced her to remove all gluten from her diet and forced her hand on cooking. “I realized I had to learn and now I really enjoy it,” she said. She’s been making the winning recipe, her crustless quiche, for about four years, much to the delight of several family members. “My mom and my grandson love it,” she said. She modified a traditional spinach quiche recipe to suit her tastes and her health needs. “It’s crustless due to the gluten in flour, and I replaced the spinach in the original recipe one day when I had some leftover collards,” she said. “I figured I’d give them a try, and I liked the collards version better, so I’ve made it with greens ever since.”

Sandy Adams, Marshall-DeKalb EC

Greens-Quiche
Photo by Michael Cornelison

Crustless Collard Greens Quiche

  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup half-and-half OR milk (unsweetened plain almond milk is a good non-dairy choice)**
  • ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)*
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground oregano OR ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion OR ¼ teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided (vegan cheese may be used, as long as it will melt)
  • 2 cups chopped, cooked fresh or frozen collard greens, squeezed dry (great use for leftover collard greens)
  • ½ cup chopped fresh mushrooms OR 1 8-ounce can sliced mushrooms
  • ¼ cup chopped bell pepper (optional, but recommended; the jar variety is fine)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a deep-dish pie plate or a large baking dish and set aside. (If using a glass dish, lower oven temperature to 325.) Squeeze as much of the liquid out of the collards as you can. If they’re in large pieces, rough-chop to bite size. In bottom of prepared dish, place greens, mushrooms, peppers and half of the cheese. In large bowl, lightly beat eggs, milk, salt, black pepper, cayenne, oregano and onion or onion powder. Pour egg mixture over greens mixture; sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake 40 to 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted near center comes clean. Let stand approximately 10 minutes before cutting. Serves 8.

Cook’s Note: * Optional: omit salt and cayenne; substitute ½ teaspoon Sriracha salt (or to taste). ** You can use half-and-half, cream, milk or a combination.


Beans and Greens Under Cornbread

Filling:

  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 large onion, cut into thin wedges
  • 2 15.5-ounce cans great northern beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 10-ounce package frozen chopped turnip greens, kale or collards, thawed and drained (you can also use 1 can greens)
  • ½ cup chopped cooked country ham

Topping:

  • 1 cup self-rising corn meal mix
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup oil
  • 1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Heat oil in a large (10-inch) cast iron skillet or ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add onion; cook 3-5 minutes or until onion is crisp tender, stirring occasionally. Add all remaining filling ingredients; mix well. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated, stirring occasionally. In medium bowl, combine all topping ingredients; stir until smooth. Spoon batter around edge of hot mixture in a baking dish. Bake at 425 for 25-30 minutes or until topping is golden brown. Yields 6 servings.

Cook’s note: This recipe brings together the best of Southern cooking – crispy cornbread, greens, white beans and ham. A friend of mine brought this to a church supper. It is always the first to go. My family prefers turnip greens, but collards are equally as tasty. This is so simple to make and is a complete meal in one dish.

Peggy Key, North Alabama EC


Grits and Greens

  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup stone ground grits
  • ½ to ¼ cup milk
  • 1 pound fresh greens, chopped
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 to 1 ½ cups Parmesan cheese
  • ½ to ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • Put whipping cream and 3 cups of chicken broth in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Gradually stir in grits and cover and simmer 25-30 minutes. Cook greens in 1 cup chicken broth until done. Put greens and all other ingredients into grits and continue to cook until blended.

Cole Sledge, Black Warrior EMC


Savory Kale

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cups bell peppers, red and green, diced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 pound kale greens, fresh, chopped (if frozen greens are used, adjust cooking time)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons chicken seasoning (McKay’s or your favorite)
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce

In a large pot over medium heat, sauté onions and garlic until slightly softened. Then add bell peppers and tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Add 3 cups of water. Add Kale greens. Cook until tender, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes. Add chicken seasoning and soy sauce. Cook for 5 minutes. Serve hot immediately, later as leftovers, or freeze for future use. Yields 6-8 servings.

DeAnna Holton, Cullman EC


Photo by Michael Cornelison
Photo by Michael Cornelison

Grandmama’s Collards

  • ½ pound smoked pork shank or a ½ pound piece of smoked slab bacon
  • Water
  • Large dishpan full of collards
  • Pinch of baking soda
  • 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)

Place smoked pork shank or slab of smoked bacon in a large cast iron pot or Dutch oven with 2 quarts water. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered while you prepare the greens. Wash the greens thoroughly, leaf by leaf. Strip out large ribs and discard; twist the greens into smaller pieces. Drop the greens into the boiling water and smoked pork. Keep punching down until all the greens are added. When they boil up well, add a pinch of baking soda about the size of a pea, and stir well. Add the sugar. Cook slowly, uncovered, at least an hour, stirring and tasting often. (Don’t end with too much water.)

After cooking an hour, and when greens are tender, add salt. Continue simmering and stirring, uncovered, a few more minutes until the taste is even throughout. (Adding salt too early may result in poorly flavored greens. You need time to see how much salt the smoked meat adds to the greens. The hard work of growing and cleaning the vegetable could be wasted, and what a disappointment that would be to hungry families!)

To serve, lift tender greens out of the pot liquor into a serving bowl. Slice through greens to chop evenly. Slice the boiled pork and place on top of the greens. Serve with fresh-baked cornbread and homemade pepper sauce on the side.

Patricia DuBose, Clarke-Washington EMC


Turnip Green Casserole

  • 10 ounces turnip greens, cooked and squeezed dry
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 3 slices bacon, fried and crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ½ sleeve Ritz crackers, crumbled

Combine first six ingredients and pour into casserole dish. Top with cracker crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and crumbs are lightly browned.

Caitlin Tebben, Cullman EC


Potlikker Soup

(serves 4)

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 sweet onion, chopped fine
  • 1 1Ž2 cups black-eyed peas or white beans
  • 1 cup chopped potatoes
  • 1 pound Conecuh sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 4 cups potlikker
  • 2 cups chicken or veggie broth
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked greens or 6 cups fresh greens (torn or chopped roughly)

In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil and add the sausage and onions. Cook over medium-high heat until the sausage browns and the onions are softened. Add the potlikker, broth, greens and beans and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. If you added fresh greens, cook an additional 35-45 minutes or so to make sure they cook down.

NOTE: If you don’t have any potlikker, but you want to make this soup, you can start from scratch. Cook greens as you normally would. (I highly recommend the Grandmama’s Collards recipe that one of our readers submitted this month.) When they’re done, use a separate pot to follow the directions above. You could just add the sausage and beans to your cooked greens, but I like the flavor I get from browning the sausage with the onions first.


How To: Clean and Prep Your Greens

      • Separate each leaf and stem from the root.
      • Give them all a good rinse individually to remove dirt and grit and pat dry.
      • Stack four or five similar-sized leaves on top of each other on a cutting board with the stems facing away from you. Cut all of the main stems out at once with a knife, cutting in a narrow “V” shape, with the point of the “V” being the top of stem in the leaf.
      • Roll the de-stemmed leaves in a tight roll and chop cross wise, each cut about ½ inch apart.
      • If you want the pieces smaller, pile them up and run your knife through them again in several directions.
      • If you’d like to learn more about the special place that collard greens occupy in Southern history and culture, check out the book Collards, A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table, published by the University of Alabama Press last spring. It’s an engrossing and entertaining look at what collards are, how they grow, why we love them and how we cook them all over the South. It includes recipes but is far more than a cookbook.

Shopping Tips

• Look for deep green color without yellow spots or brown edges.

• Make sure stems are sturdy and leaves aren’t wilting or have major tears.


 

Find your fest

Wolfmother - HangOut Music Fest 5/15/2014 - Gulf Shores AL - photo © Dave Vann 2014
Wolfmother – HangOut Music Fest 5/15/2014 – Gulf Shores AL – photo © Dave Vann 2014

Music festivals offer live performances in all genres

By Allison Griffin

The music festival season kicks into high gear soon, with multi-day, outdoor events that offer fans a chance to see their favorite acts up close (along with a few hundred or even tens of thousands of their closest friends), often with multiple genres represented in a single weekend.

Start planning and saving up some travel money now; in addition to your travel and lodging costs, some festivals charge upwards of $1,000 for premium packages. Not into the VIP scene? Grab your friends and some sunscreen and get some general admission tickets instead. Or discover some new music at a smaller event that has lower ticket prices.

Note that lineups and ticket information can change, so keep an eye on the official websites for the latest news. Below are some of Alabama’s 2016 events, arranged by date:

Waverly “Old 280” Boogie, Waverly, April 16: This 16th annual event on the grounds of the Standard Deluxe Inc. will feature Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, Town Mountain, Kim Logan, Susto, Tedo Stone, Pine Hill Haints and BB Palmer. Tickets at the gate are $25; “like” the event’s page on Facebook for more info.

Hangout Music Festival, Gulf Shores, May 20-22: Located directly on the white sandy beaches of the Gulf coast, this unofficial summer kickoff festival will feature two Alabama acts among the headliners: The Alabama Shakes and Jason Isbell, who both received top honors and exposure at the 2016 Grammy Awards. Also on the lineup: Lenny Kravitz, Florence + the Machine, Ellie Goulding, Haim, Cage the Elephant and The Weeknd. General admission tickets are $269, with VIP packages that top $1,000. www.hangoutmusicfest.com

Bluegrass on the Plains, Auburn, May 30-June 5: Expect seven full days of American roots music at the University Station RV Resort on the outskirts of Auburn, along with free workshops, open stage time, performances by Kids on Bluegrass and a Bluegrass Idol competition. Among the scheduled performers are Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester, Rhonda Vincent, Daryl Singletary, Mountain Faith, Balsam Range, Marty Raybon and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Advance tickets start at $15. www.bluegrassontheplains.com

Toadlick Music Festival, Dothan, June 2-4: This outdoor festival on the grounds of the National Peanut Festival features a variety of entertainers in country, rock ’n’ roll and Southern rock. This year’s announced performers include Kid Rock, Alabama, Justin Moore, Daughtry, Aaron Lewis, Clare Dunn, the Charlie Daniels Band, Ashley Monroe, JB and the Moonshine Band and the Eli Young Band. General admission, three-day tickets are $109. www.toadlick.com

FEST_RocktheSouth3

Rock the South, Cullman, June 3-4: Originally intended as a one-year celebration of the 2011 tornadoes, the event that highlights food, music and culture has continued with great community support. This year’s event will feature country stars Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, John Michael Montgomery, Kelsea Ballerini, Joe Diffie and Kane Brown and classic rockers .38 Special. General admission, two-day tickets are $79, with platinum and VIP tickets available. www.rockthesouth.com

Sloss Music and Arts Festival, Birmingham, July 16-17: Billed as a music and lifestyle event at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, this event offers more than 30 music acts along with demonstrations of hands-on iron pouring, an exhibit of poster makers by the American Poster Institute and arts vendors. Among the acts to perform are Ryan Adams, Death Cab for Cutie, Ray Lamontagne, The Flaming Lips and Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. General admission two-day passes start at $125. www.slossfest.com

Canceled events

DegaJam, Talladega: This event at the Talladega Superspeedway, originally set for July 1-3, was to feature country stars Eric Church, Toby Keith and Blake Shelton, among others. The Anniston Star reports that the festival was canceled for business reasons; the website is offering refunds to fans who had already purchased tickets.

BayFest, Mobile: The 2015 event in downtown Mobile, which entertained fans for 20 years, was canceled just weeks before the Oct. 2-4 date. The festival founder cited financial concerns, according to al.com. Similar city-sponsored events, including Birmingham’s City Stages and Montgomery’s Jubilee CityFest, also ended their runs in the last few years, also due to money woes.

Out of state

If you don’t mind driving a bit, several festivals in neighboring states feature big-name acts and will no doubt draw big-time crowds:

Shaky Knees, Atlanta, May 13-15: Jane’s Addiction, Florence + the Machine, My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, Huey Lewis and the News and Alabama natives St. Paul and the Broken Bones headline this festival in Centennial Olympic Park. Its sister event, Shaky Boots, is on hiatus this year. Single-day tickets start at $97. www.shakykneesfestival.com

Bonnaroo, June 9-12, Manchester, Tenn.: Pearl Jam, Dead and Company, Jason Isbell, J. Cole, Ellie Goulding, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Grace Potter and Sam Hunt are among the many acts this year. General admission starts at $349.50. www.bonnaroo.com

Gulf Coast Jam, Panama City Beach, Fla., Sept. 2-4: Billed as “country on the coast,” this event will feature Eric Church, Brad Paisley, Jake Owen, The Band Perry and Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. General admission tickets are $129. www.gulfcoastjam.com

The cooperative spirit at work

A tornado looms on the horizon in Sand Mountain territory.
A tornado looms on the horizon in Sand Mountain territory.

Co-ops pulled together to recover from April 2011 tornadoes

By Allison Griffin

The tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011 was unlike any in Alabama’s history.

The statistics are jarring: 351 tornadoes swept through the Southeastern U.S. in just three days. The deadliest day was April 27, when a record 62 tornadoes, including eight EF-4 and three EF-5 tornadoes, struck Alabama. There were a total of 247 fatalities, more than 2,000 injuries and $4.2 billion in property damage. The storms affected 35 counties, and caused deaths in 19 of those counties. It was the third deadliest event in recent U.S. history.

The destruction was immediate and devastating. Landmarks, churches, businesses, farms and family homes were damaged or obliterated. First responders and emergency personnel found roads, and in some cases entire areas, impassable. Communities struggled to cope with the damage to infrastructure. Survivors sifted through the rubble of their possessions and their lives.

Crews work to restore power in Cullman area devastated by 2011 tornadoes.
Crews work to restore power in Cullman area devastated by 2011 tornadoes.

For employees of rural electric cooperatives, there was little time to grieve. Residents in north and central Alabama were only just beginning to comprehend the breadth of the destruction when their co-ops were already mobilizing crews to rebuild power lines.

The task was formidable. The TVA transmission system, which supplies power to the north Alabama distribution cooperatives, had suffered the worst damage in its history. Three hundred and fifty-three TVA transmission stations were damaged, and 108 transmission lines were out of service. More than 850,000 customers throughout the TVA service area were without power, including 450,000 customers in north Alabama.

Electric co-op crews across north Alabama started working on restoration as early as mid-morning, after the first wave of tornadoes. Most also called for help from the Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA), which coordinates line crews to help in the aftermath of storms.

Seven tornadoes touched down in the Sand Mountain EC service area in northeast Alabama. As more storms formed, General Manager Mike Simpson and his employees felt they were continually losing ground. There was massive damage to one of their substations, but the crews couldn’t start making repairs because they were helping clear roads.

‘The worst storm I’ve ever had to deal with’

“That was without a doubt the most helpless feeling in my 35-plus years of being in the power business, and my 20 years as a manager,” Simpson says. “That’s the worst storm I’ve ever had to deal with.”

Black Warrior EMC in west Alabama was still reeling from an April 15 tornado that had affected Choctaw County at the far southern end of its system. Then, two weeks later, the tornadoes cut a swath through the area near Greensboro, in the northern part of its system. More than half its customers were without power.

Because Black Warrior’s territory is very rural, there wasn’t the concentration of damage that the cities of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham suffered. Black Warrior Operations Superintendent Robbie Rose, who was a lineman in 2011, went with crews to Tuscaloosa a few days later.

“It was devastating. Houses everywhere. Concrete power poles lying across the road. It was just total devastation. It’s hard to get ready for something like that,” he says.

Memorial in Rainsville outside the DeKalb County Schools Coliseum is a tribute to those killed by an EF5 tornado April 27, 2011.
Memorial in Rainsville outside the DeKalb County Schools Coliseum is a tribute to those killed by an EF5 tornado April 27, 2011.

The folks at Cullman EC watched from the co-op as an EF-4 tornado passed through the city of Cullman. Jason Saunders, who at the time worked on the AREA safety staff, was at the Cullman co-op that day, and on April 28 traveled through the Coosa Valley EC and Cherokee EC areas, which also suffered damage and deaths. He finally made it to Sand Mountain EC to offer help there.

“Little did I know that this event was not about just rebuilding cooperative lines,” Saunders says. “This was about rebuilding communities. As I peered out across the parking lot, the county EMA had set up a makeshift morgue sitting literally outside the fence of the cooperative.”

Co-op employees across the northern part of the state were either directly or indirectly affected; some lost homes, friends and family, Saunders says. But they told stories of what they did to help without hesitation, all while continuing to rebuild their system.

Perhaps the takeaway is the sense of community that enabled neighbors to work through their grief and to help one another. Every co-op has stories about co-ops from Alabama and neighboring states that sent line crews to set poles and hang wire and right-of-way crews to clear debris and cut trees. Countless office staff answered calls and arranged for meals, and warehouse employees helped with constant delivery of new materials and supplies.

And there are the restaurants, businesses and churches that stepped in to feed all these working folks and to help with housing.

Such outpourings of help, even in the worst of circumstances, are at the core of the cooperative spirit.

“Sometimes,” Saunders says, “It is when we are at our weakest point that we find our strength in God, friends, and our extended cooperative families.”

The melody will always live on

Hank Williams’ 1952 Cadillac on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery. Courtesy of the alabama tourism department
Hank Williams’ 1952 Cadillac on display at
the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery. Courtesy of the alabama tourism department

Museums document Alabama’s music history

By Marilyn Jones

Music evokes mood and memory. It is a form of celebration; the cadence of life. It is found in every culture, varying only by its creators, the times and its delivery. It helps us express ourselves.

In Alabama, several museums showcase the talents of our citizens — past and present — who brought music to life from radio pioneers, singers, songwriters, musicians and others collaborating for the art and the listener.

The Alabama Historical Radio Museum operated by the Alabama Historical Radio Society offers the history of Alabama Power Company’s radio station. WSY began broadcasting in 1920 and was the 127th station in the nation approved for broadcasting. Radios from this era are displayed and visitors learn that many listeners built their own radios from instructions in Birmingham Age Herald newspaper articles.

The historic timeline continues into the 1930s, when even the Great Depression couldn’t stop the radio’s popularity, and into the 1950s when television began to take over some programming, but never overtook music.

Historic photos are on display at the Birmingham Black Radio Museum. This photo from 1954 is of Andrew Dawkins, a disc jockey for WBCO. Photo courtesy Birmingham Black Radio Museum
Historic photos are on display at the Birmingham Black Radio Museum. This photo from 1954 is of Andrew Dawkins, a disc jockey for WBCO. Photo courtesy Birmingham Black Radio Museum

The Birmingham Black Radio Museum traces the history of black radio in the city since the mid -1930s and has successfully gathered memorabilia, pictures, news clippings, oral histories and personal testimonies “that help depict Birmingham black radio’s evolution and its symbiotic relationship to the black Birmingham area community and the community at large,” according to museum literature.

The project, founded in 1992 by Bob Friedman with support from Gary Richardson, owner of WJLD Radio, also produced the film “A Radio Hero.” The film features Paul White. Dubbed “Tall Paul” in 1962, White was the most significant Birmingham radio announcer of the 1963 movement years. He was the only Birmingham announcer mentioned specifically by the Rev. Martin Luther King in his reference to the Children’s Campaign of 1963. Friedman presents the film to public groups upon request.

The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, also in Birmingham, honors jazz artists with ties to the state. Exhibits in the art-deco museum showcase musicians, band leaders and singing artists including Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins and Harry Bellefonte.

Visitors travel from the beginnings of boogie woogie with Clarence “Pinetop” Smith to the jazz space journeys of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Space Arkestra.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia highlights music-makers from all genres with exhibits illustrating how Alabamians contributed to make the music industry what it is today.

Tours start in the Hall of Fame Gallery that features portraits of inductees painted by Tuskegee artist Ronald McDowell.

In the Popular Music section there is recording equipment used in Alabama-born Sam Phillips’ Memphis Music Service and the contract between Phillips and RCA representing soon-to-be superstar Elvis Presley. More displays feature apparel and instruments from Tommy Shaw of Styx fame, Ransom Wilson’s flute, Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle costume, and memorabilia donated by Emmylou Harris, Donna Godchaux, Bobby Goldsboro, Lionel Richie and The Commodores.

The tour continues in the Country Music area and features the personal memorabilia of Sonny James, Tammy Wynette, Vern Gosdin, Jeanne Pruett, Freddie Hart and Rose Maddox. The highlight is the Southern Star tour bus of superstar group – and Hall of Fame inductees – Alabama, giving visitors a first-hand understanding of life on the road.

A classic jazz club facade frames the Rhythm and Blues area. Erskine Hawkins’ trumpet, Martha Reeves’ and Eddie Kendricks’ stage outfits, gold records by Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge and other artifacts are displayed.

The Gospel Showcase memorializes gospel greats Jake Hess, Gold City, The Speer Family and The Sullivan Family.

The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery houses the most complete collection of memorabilia with more than 35 showcases filled with personal artifacts, clothing, the 1947 Gibson guitar and the microphone and stand he used during his last performance, to list a few. The museum also houses Williams’ 1952 Cadillac in which he made his final journey.

Born in Mount Olive, Hank and his family moved to Georgiana and later Montgomery. The Hank Williams Boyhood Home and Museum in Georgiana is housed in the structure where the country singer lived from age 7 to 11. It was there that it is said he learned to play guitar from street singer Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne and sang on the streets for tips. Items on display include a Hank and Hezzy’s original Drifting Cowboys hat, Hank & Audrey’s dishes and custom-made curtains and valance from his Nashville home.

Williams’ career began in 1937 when he won a talent show at the Empire Theater in Montgomery with his original tune, “WPA Blues.” He went on to become one of America’s first country music superstars, with hits like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” before his death at 29.

Other museums honoring some of Alabama’s great performers include The Alabama Fan Club and Museum in Fort Payne; W. C. Handy Home & Museum in Florence; and an exhibit at Isabel Anderson Comer Museum in Sylacauga celebrating native Jim Nabors’ success for his beautiful voice as well as his portrayal of Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”

If you go:

Alabama Historical Radio Museum: 600 N. 18th St., Birmingham; (205) 967-7000; alabamahistoricalradiosociety.org/Museum.htmBirmingham Black Radio Museum: Carver Theater, 1631 Fourth Ave. N., Birmingham; (205) 902-9487

Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame: 1631 Fourth Ave. N., Birmingham; (205) 327-9424; jazzhall.com/

Alabama Music Hall of Fame: 617 U.S. Highway 72 W., Tuscumbia; (800) 239-2643; alamhof.org/

Hank Williams Museum: 118 Commerce St., Montgomery; (334) 262-3600; thehankwilliamsmuseum.net/

Hank Williams Boyhood Home and Museum: 127 Rose St., Georgiana; (334) 376-2396, hankmuseum.com

The Alabama Fan Club and Museum: 101 Glenn Blvd. SW, Fort Payne; (256) 845-1646; thealabamaband.com/fanclub.html

W.C. Handy Home & Museum: 620 West College St., Florence; (256) 760-6434; visitflorenceal.com/things_to_do/w-c-handy-birthplace-museum-library/

Isabel Anderson Comer Museum: 711 N. Broadway, Sylacauga; (256) 245-4016; comermuseum.weebly.com/

 

‘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
RO_IN KITCHEN
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

RO_BUST

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?’”