In the very early eighties, as what would become classic rock arguably began to decline instature among the masses, country music was (like today) holding its own. That is, until a group out of Fort Payne, Alabama, took country music stages across America by a storm. No, make that a countrified blitzkrieg.
How’s this for accomplishments?
• Have sold seventy-five million albums and singles (combined)
• Over 30 number one country hits according to Billboard magazine
• R.I.A.A. named them as Country Group of the Century in 1999
• Seven platinum albums
• According to Wikipedia, the band is considered the most awarded band in country music with over 200 awards from a plethora of organizations
• They’ve been credited with single-handedly broadening the appeal of country music well beyond its then-established boundaries, directly responsible for its continued appeal today
• Still touring and producing popular, relevant country music today
To that latter point, Alabama has just released a brand spankin’ new concert DVD entitled, “Alabama & Friends At The Ryman,” and it, once again, shows how and why the iconic country band has the staying power that it does.
I’ve known a person or two who have worked under the band in various positions such as security and other services. They spoke glowingly of the band’s kindness, generosity and creativity and I could tell that they were giving the band more than lip service. Consequently, I have always wanted to interview one or more of the band. Because of this new release, I was afforded the opportunity to interview the band’s lead guitarist, Jeff Cook, and, of course, I jumped at the chance.
I reached Jeff on his cell phone as he was heading to Birmingham, Alabama, on some business and, after a little chit chat asked him what the feedback has been like, so far, on the DVD.
“The DVD hasn’t been out long enough, I don’t think, to get an accurate reading but just speculating, I think we’re going to have a pretty nice product here that people will want.” And what about comments from friends? “Well, I haven’t talked to any of my friends who has it!”
I was curious how the band determined who would perform with them and if the guest artists were friends of theirs. His answer reflected the mind of a man who has been in the business for a long time.
“Well, I think we all had crossed paths at least once. A lot of it had to do with who could do it, contractually. There were some other folks who would’ve liked to have worked with us on it but couldn’t for a variety of reasons. There was no, ‘I like you better,’ kind of thing.”
I used Cook’s comment to jump ahead to a question I had planned to ask later in the interview which was: How did he see the impact of the changes on the business side of country music?
“This is a personal observation and opinion. I don’t think success can be achieved today as it was when it was our turn because the music and the industry is constantly changing. Methods of operation and everything that’s sometimes not always great.
“The positive changes, the way I look at it, are the recordings – the technology – has come along and getting stronger every day - quality of the music, the technical quality, not the content. That’s always debatable. Now, the guy who wrote the song probably loves it but that don’t mean his buddy does.”
Did the guest artists bring anything new to the songs?
“We stressed to ‘em, ‘Do your own thing to put your twist on it. Let’s see what your interpretation is’ instead of, ‘Let’s copy Alabama.’ I think that turned out what we intended it to be.”
Artists typically refuse to pick a favorite song of theirs because doing so would be akin to picking one’s favorite child. So, I asked Jeff which performance he would point to as a “calling card” for the video.
“I think, probably, Trisha Yearwood did a great job on the song she did. That’s a good sample of the quality of these songs and the interpretations by the artists.”
With such a wealthy catalog of additional great songs in their arsenal, I asked Jeff if there were any plans for any follow up concert videos like this one.
“I guess anything like that is possible. It just depends on the marketing minds that are working on it now. I would like to see another one of these down the pike. We need to give this one time to do its thing. ‘Course, being filmed at the Ryman didn’t hurt anything, either. In fact, it was an honor to be able to play there with so many great artists who’ve worked there. I think we’ve played the Opry – in that building – twice. The first time we played on the Opry out at Opryland, my mother and daddy were having their fiftieth anniversary. We did a dry run because I wanted to show them how to get into the back in the parking area. While we were there, Minnie Pearl and her entourage comes up. It was all over then. They didn’t care if we played or not since they got to talk to Minnie Pearl!”
While Jeff and I did share at length our admiration for various legacy country artists who were key to shaping and continuing the genre, I was curious who of the new crop of artists were commanding his attention.
“Well, it depends on watcha call ‘new.’ I like Brad Paisley’s stuff. Of course, I think one of the best female singers is, of course, Trisha Yearwood. Also, Martina McBride, but she’s not on this DVD, unfortunately.”
I shifted the course of our chat just a little by bringing up that the music industry (country, rock and other genres) seems to ignore the older talent that we still love to listen to its financial detriment, which makes no sense at all. I mentioned talent like the late George Jones as well as other Country Music Hall of Famers that seem to be virtually ignored by the industry. I asked Jeff what his take on it was.
“Well, first of all, I’d like to say that I like the older stuff, too, as well. I was fortunate enough to have an invitation extended to play with George (Jones) and did several shows with him prior to his death. He still put it all on the stage. That’s George and the way George does it. And it’s true of a lot of other artists, too. Some of them haven’t had time to build a catalog or a performance record that others have. But it comes down to the business side of the business instead of the performance side that I think could be changed to actually revert back to some of the stuff that worked better, maybe.”
That comment provoke my often asked question of artists: If you were made the Music Czar and given the mission to fix the industry, what would you do to fix it?
“Have laws passed that you couldn’t have a monopoly on radio stations – corporately owned. When Alabama did it, we sat down and wrote letters and sent out 45’s – remember those? – sent out 45 RPM records to radio stations. We’d get up and drive three different directions from Myrtle Beach. You’d get wet if you kept going east. We’d go north, south and west and reach as many stations as we could visit and write letters to because there were actually program directors and music directors in the building. It wasn’t just a title. They actually got to decide what was played and it’s not that way in a lot of cases, any more. You can’t get that one-on-one relation with the stations. That would fix a lot of things, right there.
“If you’re any good at what you do, you can set up your own concerts and station visits and such as that. It’s gotten so complicated and full of red tape, too many hands out that it loses its personality. There’s a lot of things that could be changed or undone. You’ve got the people at the top who want to make all the money. Then you’ve got the people who are interested in the music and the performance.”
Cook then answered my questions about tour plans and what was on Alabama’s radar for the next year and, maybe, a little beyond.
“Oh, yes. We have been touring for the last two and a half years or so. We’ve already got fifteen shows booked into next year. We’re not going to do three hundred dates a year like we used to. But I think we’ll probably do twenty or thirty dates. We’re at a point in our career that we don’t have to play everyplace that’s offered. We can pick and choose. Is it going to kill us to get from Point A to Point B in x-amount of time?”
As for the future for the band, Jeff said, “Yeah, we’re coming out with a new country album. Give it about six months. We’re still looking for material. We’ll probably write some of it and take some that’s submitted. Hopefully, it will be good. Ha! Ha!
“Of course, we have the Cracker Barrel gospel album that we worked out with the Gaither people. That’s doing really well. They underestimated the sales by 209%. They’ve been sold out a lot. It’s a good thing but it’s a bad thing. Everybody buys the record at the first of the week. When the weekend comes and you get all the traffic through there that might see the signs to pick up a copy of the CD and there’s no product. But they’re working on that.
“The story behind that CD is that, for years, we toyed around with the possibility of doing a gospel album with recognizable tunes – things that you heard growing up, in church, and such as that. Finally, we had the opportunity to work with Bill Gaither’s companies. They’re the people that seem to have the thing refined, now, as far as getting gospel music out there. For the month of September, it was exclusive for Cracker Barrel and you get three bonus songs that won’t be on the others that, as of October first, it will be at Wal-Mart, K-Mart and all the normal outlets. I’m sure that it can be downloaded, also.”
Continuing about the gospel album, Cook said, “We picked from a list of songs suggested by the Gaither organization and then we added to it and got the top four new songs – new to me, anyway. One of them I wrote. I suggest to the people who might want a copy of this that they go to CrackerBarrel.com or pick one up at their local Cracker Barrel.”
When I joked with Jeff about why he hadn’t sent me a review copy of the album, he said, “I had buy mine from a Cracker Barrel off of I-65 going to Nashville. That sounds funny but that’s the way it happened! I got two copies so that I could listen to it in quadraphonic sound. Ha! Ha!”
I asked Cook how the band’s upbringing (whether in or out of church) affected the song selection for the gospel album.
“Well, for us and our generation – even older than that, some of them were played in church. Teddy’s mentioned several times that the first songs that he ever heard were in church and then country came along, subsequently. Teddy’s mother and aunts sang in church. That’s where he picked up playing guitar. Of course, Randy’s family had made records and such before and we played on those. It just seemed like the natural thing to do for us. We didn’t have a whole lot of problem with lyric sheets because we knew the words.”
In the old days of Southern Gospel music, the groups and quartets had to pay for their own record production, handle their own marketing and sales and all other related activities. I commented to Jeff that it seems that up and coming acts are having to do pretty much the same thing and asked if that was an accurate observation on my part.
“I think a lot of those responsibilities fall back on the band and management – the promotion, as well. Of course, social networks help promote things – an electronic word of mouth helps get the product out there – the promotions and such – to the right people.”
As our time was winding down I asked Jeff if he had any solo work or other kinds of side projects going on.
“We’ve all done solo things. I work with another band called “All Star Good Time Band” – an eight piece group with a horn section and we do a little bit of everything. And, then, Randy’s doing some solo stuff and Teddy’s got a group that he calls, “Rocket City,” that he does a few things with. That’s that and then there’s “Alabama.”
My final question for Jeff Cook before we had to go was one that I ask many artists who have a long, distinguished career such as himself: How did he want to be remembered and what did he hope his and the band’s legacy would be?
“We’ve had so many firsts in our career; it’s going to be hard for anybody to catch up. We all feel that we’re not going to kill ourselves touring. We kind of pick and choose what we need and want to do. Things are a lot better as far as the touring situation. You can hardly get Randy and Teddy on an airplane but I don’t want to go anywhere unless I go on an airplane. Just little things like that.
“As far as being remembered, we’re the Country Group of the Century so we won’t be around to see who takes our place. So I guess I want us to be remembered as somebody who put out quality music, enjoyed life and made a lot of friends along the way.”