You can forgive Alabama for reneging on its retirement and reforming for a 40th anniversary tour. For lead singer Randy Owen, reuniting with the country band after its 2007 farewell tour was a life-saver.
“I had cancer. Prostate. Having got a good report and everything, I think the way for me to make a difference and maybe help people and be good for myself is to go out and get my guitar and play and sing,” Owen, 63, said from his cabin on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. His dogs, he said, lay bored at his feet.
“I just got up and started talking, and the dogs are laying around and looking up at me. ‘We’ve heard all these stories. Come on, tell him something …’ ”
And so Owen opens up. A 15-minute telephone interview stretches into an hour. Owen reflects on Alabama’s formation 40 years ago and Kelly, his wife of 38 years — a “Georgia girl” who was in the front row of a concert at the Bowery in Myrtle Beach, S.C., years before the band broke through with 1981’s romantic single Feels So Right. That warm ballad “was responsible for a lot of babies and near misses,” he quipped.
Owen also talked about how touring today has changed from the whirlwind ’80s and ’90s.
“My wife and I never had a lot of time in the early days, so we’re enjoying some of that time now that we never had because she took care of the kids. So we get on a bus like two newlyweds of 38 years, and the fire still burns.”
The Back to the Bowery Tour and Alabama & Friends tribute album (out Aug. 27) celebrate a career that ranks Alabama the most successful country group in history. Formed by cousins Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook, Alabama have had 32 No. 1 country hits, including Mountain Music, The Closer You Get and Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler) along with a 33rd, Old Alabama, a 2011 collaboration with Brad Paisley.
Yet those early Bowery shows were among the most special. “We never knew not to go at it full blast. God had given me this opportunity to be with Alabama, and I’m not going to screw it up. I’ll stay focused and go as long as my body and health will let me go.”
But popularity couldn’t mask pain. Owen lost his father in 1980, just as Alabama was hitting with My Home’s In Alabama and Tennessee River.
“Thousands of people are screaming, calling your name, and inside you were dying,” Owen said. “Some of the greatest moments were the saddest times.”
Tar Top broke a string of chart-toppers in 1987; it’s still Owen’s favorite Alabama song.
“That’s a song I wrote on the way to Myrtle Beach from Jacksonville State University when I got my diploma. I was the first person in my family to get a college degree. That song talked about our struggles and everything we want to do. It was a song that was very misunderstood, but for me it was deeply personal. Tar Top epitomized how I felt, and still do, about this tour. Here I am, 40 years after that first night, and I’m still alive after all the close encounters and just a lot of luck and God taking care of us.”