Once Upon A Lifetime: What Happened To Alabama?

Image from the Official Alabama site

Sometimes a band is in the right place at the right time. Being in the right place for two decades, however, is as much skill as it is luck.

If there’s a clear thread running through the deep dives I’ve done thus far, it’s that Bro-Country touched a lot of artists by forcing them to choose a side in the battle over the soul of the genre. It’s a fascinating topic to grapple with, but Nick was looking for a bit more variety in his deep dives, and thus he proposed an examination of a successful group from a slightly-earlier era:

If you listen to country artists today, you’d be forgiven for thinking Alabama was a one-hit wonder who struck gold with “Dixieland Delight.” (Given that the track was the group’s least successful single of 1983 and wouldn’t even crack my personal Top Ten, I have no idea why people keep referencing it over, say, “The Closer You Get,” which actually cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100.) However, when Nick calls Alabama “the biggest country act of the 80s,” he’s not exaggerating: They put twenty-seven songs at the top of the country charts, won multiple Group of the Year and Entertainer of the Year awards, and wound up being crowned the artist of the entire freaking decade. While they eventually fell from that incredible peak, their decline was both pretty darn slow and pretty darn successful, and it took Nashville another decade or so to truly put the group out to pasture.

When we looked into the career of Rascal Flatts, we broke it down into two pieces (the successful 2000s and the less-successful 2010s). Alabama’s incredible run can be broken down in a similar manner, except that it’s really a tale of three decades:

Alabama in the…
1980s 1990s 2000s
Single Releases 29 29 6
Billboard #1s 27 5 0
Top Ten Hits 28 22 0
Songs Peaking Below #20 0 4 5

The actual breaking points don’t quite line up along decade boundaries (the #1 streak breaks for good in 1991, and the sub-20 peaks start appearing in 1996), but it serves a nice framework for discussing what happened to country music’s ultimate band.

First, let’s talk about the things that don’t seem to be the problem.

What It Ain’t

Was Alabama impacted by…

  • Label Instability? Not at all. Alabama signed with RCA Records in 1980, and the pairing held through Alabama’s “dissolution” in 2004. RCA went through a number of corporate mergers over the yearsgetting taken over by BMG in 1986, eventually merging with Sony in 2004—but the label stayed on its feet well enough to keep Alabama in the country music consciousness for several decades. This is pretty much a textbook example of a long-term successful relationship between an act and a label.
  • Group Disharmony? Tensions between drummer Mark Herndon and the rest of the group spilled out into the open after the group’s split, and Herndon ended up writing a tell-all book about everything that went down. Still, the incidents detailed went all the way back to the group’s heyday (yet the group hung together for many more years), and Herndon refrained from slandering his former bandmates in the book. Creative (and not-so-creative) tension is an issue with every band, and it didn’t seem to derail the group’s success here.
  • Loaded Imagery? Flipping through the covers of Alabama’s old albums, it’s hard not to notice how prominently the Confederate flag features on some of them. However, artists were not punished for such sins back in the 80s and 90s (consider how long Confederate Railroad got away with their name before they got called out for it), and by the time the world woke up to how toxic a symbol the flag was, Alabama had long since dropped it from their albums. Outside of a 2015 article where the band’s manager declared that the band had explicitly banned the flag from being used in its promotional material, the group has mostly managed to sidestep what would be an incredibly awkward conversation.
  • Bro-Country? Alabama may have taken some shots over their “comeback” album Southern Drawl in 2015, but the truth is that these guys were long gone from the scene when Bro-Country reared its head as an all-encompassing trend in the 2010s. For once, we’ve found an act whose mainstream career was not impacted by the Metro-Bro era.

However, while Bro-Country didn’t take down Alabama, it was the shifting trends within country music that eventually knocked them off the mountaintop and eventually off the stage. First, let’s examine the events surrounding the group’s rise:

 

Image from Paste Magazine

The 1980s: Mountain Music

In its early days, Alabama had basically two gears: They could be Lynyrd Skynyrd with a fiddle and a little less noise (“Mountain Music,” “Tennessee River,” “My Home’s In Alabama”), or they could be the slickest pop-country band you’d ever heard (“Feels So Right,” “Take Me Down,” “Why Lady Why”). Both personas, however, were perfect for the musical climate in the early 1980s:

  • Many of the notable Southern rock bands of the 1970s did not make a successful leap to the new decade. Lynyrd Skynyrd went on hiatus following a tragic plane crash in 1977, The Marshall Tucker Band could hardly get themselves onto the charts after their late-70s commercial peak (they suffered their own tragic accident in 1980), and the Allman Brothers fell apart in 1982 and didn’t get back together until the very end of the decade. Other groups helped to fill the void (.38 Special, ZZ Top), but there’s no denying that there was a vacuum in Southern rock at the time, and despite their softer sound, Alabama was a prime candidate to fill it.
  • At the same time, country music became consumed by the “Urban Cowboy” craze following the 1980 John Travolta/Debra Winger film of the same name. Nashville’s sound got noticeably more polished following the outlaw and folk movements of the 70s, with songs like Johnny Lee’s ubiquitous “Lookin’ For Love” dominating the charts. Alabama, however, could deliver a pop-tinged love song with the best of them, and thus blended seamlessly into the trend.

The result was like selling water in the desert: Alabama completely dominated the early and mid 1980s, with the first six of the group’s RCA albums (plus a greatest-hits compilation, plus a freaking Christmas album) going multi-platinum, and a slew of critical acclaim:

Alabama as…
ACM Group Of The Year CMA Group Of The Year ACM Entertainer of the Year CMA Entertainer of the Year
1982-1985 1981-1983 1981-1985 1982-1984

The band’s performance in the late 80s was nothing to sneeze at either: Their albums still went platinum, and their singles continued to reach #1 with regularity. However, the seeds of the group’s undoing were started to take root:

  • Following the collapse of the Urban Cowboy craze, Nashville began to regroup behind a more-traditional sound, with artists like George Strait and Randy Travis rising to prominence. The fabled “Class of ’89” would add eventual household names like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and most notably Garth Brooks.
  • Nashville, like the NFL, is a copycat league, and the moment every non-RCA exec saw Alabama cleaning up, they went out to find a country band of their own. Before Alabama, groups in the genre had been mostly restricted to vocal quartets (The Oak Ridge Boys, The Stater Brothers). Acts like Highway 101, Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown, and Shenandoah started crowding Alabama’s turf, while forgotten groups like Exile suddenly got a second lease on life.

Both of these trends would accelerate as we reached…

The 1990s: A Neotraditional Nightmare?

The 1990s are revered within the country music community as a time when old and new sounds merged seamlessly to create a sound that was both aesthetically satisfying and commercially viable. “Hat acts” became all the rage, female artists got some decent representation for a change, and even more country bands popped up: The Kentucky Headhunters, The Mavericks, Little Texas, Diamond Rio, Confederate Railroad, and eventually Lonestar and The Dixie Chicks. Where Alabama once had the stage to itself with a sound that bridged the gap between fandoms, they now had to share the stage and adapt to a slightly-different sound.

Having a fiddle and some pop sensibilities, however, allowed Alabama to adjust to the changing genre and maintain their prominent position within it. They were able to maintain their late-80s platinum album sales through most of the decade, and although they weren’t visiting the top of Billboard’s chart nearly as often (their last visit actually came in 1993 with “Reckless”), they could still reach the Top Five with impressive consistency through the first half of the decade.

The groups finally started to show some weakness in the late 90s, however, as country music started to shift away from the neotraditional sound to something more unapologetically pop and slick. Whereas Florida Georgia Line has been the villain for most of my deep dives thus far, I would put Alabama’s eventual demise at the feet of someone else:

Image from NPR

The late 1990s were absolutely owned by Shania Twain, who exploded onto the scene in 1995 with a sound and a swagger that made her a worldwide phenomenon. Though she received the usual criticism that her style was “destroying” country music (the same charge Garth Brooks had gotten not long before then), her exceptional combination of talent and attitude drove  a legion of fans into stadiums and record stores, and a number of other acts (most notably Faith Hill and Martina McBride, but also other artists like Lee Ann Womack) took notice and started incorporating a breezier, more confident style into their act.

Despite its earlier success with a poppier sound and a mostly-successful pivot in the neotraditional era, Alabama struggled to adapt to the new genre landscape. They started experimenting a bit with their sound (for example, “Dancin’, Shaggin’ On The Boulevard” had a noticeably bright and beachy sound), and even brought in boy-band powerhouse N’ Sync for a collaboration in 1999, but they found themselves getting beaten at their own game by groups like Lonestar, whose track “Amazed” became the official soundtrack for 1999 (and eventually 2000 when it crossed over to pop radio). After nearly twenty years on the radio, Alabama had finally met a metaphorical river it couldn’t cross.

The 2000s: The End

The 2000s were basically a continuation of the late 90s: Twain gave way to Carrie Underwood, Lonestar gave way to Rascal Flatts, and the smoother, sensitive side of masculinity gave way to the edgier tones of artists like Toby Keith and Trace Adkins. While neotraditional stalwarts still managed to carve out a place in the genre (in particular, Alan Jackson had some massive hits in this decade), a southern-rock/pop crossover band with over twenty years worth of mileage on its odometer didn’t stand much of a chance. The members of Alabama also appeared to be tiring of the nonstop life on the road, and wanted to leave the genre on their own terms before they were forced out. The group announced their farewell tour in 2002, played their “final” show in 2004, and despite a return to touring and album production in 2010s, the group’s days in the limelight were effectively over.

So what brought Alabama down in the end? The Shania-fueled push towards pop-country was likely the final straw, but in some respects I think lead singer Randy Owen’s quote about “the integrity of being great” rings true as well. The group had seen the writing on the wall, and while they had tried to resist it with things like the N’ Sync collaboration, they knew deep down that they no longer had the energy to keep up with the Joneses. In a way, Alabama sensed it was just time: Time to walk away while they could still walk, and preserve what is an incredible legacy of success.

Alabama’s departure from country music reminds me a lot of Peyton Manning’s retirement from football: Both Manning and Alabama knew that they had gone as far as they had to gone, that to continue would be futile and not up to their high standards, and were content with the knowledge that their legacies were secure. Both had left their mark on their respective professions, and both had achieved incredible heights along the way. (And after Peyton’s Nationwide commercials, both now have successful collaborations with Brad Paisley.)

So yeah, Alabama is more than just “the group that performed ‘Dixieland Delight.'” If you’re not familiar with them, find a copy of their For The Record compilation, and start working your way back through their discography. I think you’ll find that their place in country music history is well-deserved.

3 thoughts on “Once Upon A Lifetime: What Happened To Alabama?

  1. Great piece! And LOL at the line about both Peyton and Alabama having successful Brad collaborations. It’s funny but very true! In regards to why “Dixieland Delight” is the go-to reference song for this group, I think it’s because of the success of Alabama football lately. This song is sang at all of their home games where they add their own twist to the lyrics. So it makes sense it’s gotten more popular thanks to a football team that is the most popular in college football. It was also temporarily banned at games thanks to their “creative” lyrics, making it notorious. For reference: https://youtu.be/98c0WWNdglU

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    1. The thing I find interesting about “Dixieland Delight” is that, while I hear it a lot on throwback country radio, I can think of at least 4 Alabama songs that I hear more often from my personal experience (those bring “Song of the South”, “Mountain Music”, If You’re Gonna Play in Texas”, and “I’m in a Hurry”).

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