The experience may have been virtual, but it evoked some very real memories.
Diane and I spent part of New Year’s Eve watching a livestreamed concert by Alabama. The legendary country group may be only a shadow of its former self now, with only two original members still regularly performing, yet we’re glad to see they continue to make their music.
I remember back in 1982 when The Bryan Times’ then general manager Tom Voigt walked out of his office and announced he had free concert tickets available for anyone interested. It seemed some group called Alabama was going to perform outdoors that weekend at Buck Lake Ranch.
At first I had no interest, as I had never heard of Alabama, but when no one else spoke up I thought, 'What the heck,' and took the tickets. Diane and I were dating at the time, and when I told her about the concert she thought it might be worthwhile so we went.
A press conference was scheduled ahead of the show, and I have to say I was less than impressed when we showed up at the press tent. There were three or four rows of chairs, a table for the band, and only two other people there. One was the show promoter, and the other was an Indiana radio disk jockey.
Before long four polite young men walked in and sat behind the table — lead singer Randy Owen, bassist Teddy Gentry, guitarist and fiddle player Jeff Cook, all cousins — along with tour manager Greg Fowler. We were told the drummer, Mark Herndon, was busy with the sound check.
I really had no idea what to ask the musicians. The disk jockey seemed to know a bit about them and posed a few questions, and Diane asked some general musical questions. I struck a chord with them when I asked about their biggest pet peeves when touring, and they said it was trying to figure out a maze of hallways to find their hotel rooms once they checked it.
The band members were very personable and unassuming, and we enjoyed chatting with them. Diane and I were surprised when they began singing a song they told us they were working on. Their a cappella harmonies were nothing short of amazing, and I immediately began looking forward to the concert.
As the musicians were leaving the tent the tour manager spoke with us briefly and gave us his card. “If you ever need anything,” he told us, “give me a call.”
We were then ushered over the outdoor concert venue and sat in front of the stage, with our choice of the best seats in the house.
Alabama’s energy, instrumentals and vocal harmonies were impressive, and it was a concert Diane and I never will forget. As it turned out the band’s popularity exploded soon after, and most of the songs we heard that afternoon would hit number one on the country charts. The song in the works they sang for us in the press tent, “Lady Down on Love,” also became a number one hit.
We learned that Alabama’s members had been performing as a group for years, often playing for tips in a South Carolina bar before they earned a recording contract.
A year after our introduction to the group we again snagged free tickets when Alabama returned to Buck Lake Ranch. This time the press tent was full, with uniformed policemen working to control the thousands of fans crowded around to get a look at the new stars. Diane did not have her own press pass, so she was not even allowed inside the crowded tent.
We again had choice spots to witness another great show. As it turned out we would have front row seats for the band’s success for years to come. I held onto tour manager Greg Fowler’s card, and he remembered that we gave Alabama our attention before they became a household name. Every time the group performed in the area I gave Greg a call and he gave us free tickets and backstage passes. Greg always was a gentleman, and was kind and generous with us.
We often were able to chat with the band members following their shows. After one concert I was thrilled to be able to bring my mom, an Alabama native and huge fan of the band, backstage to meet the musicians. Greg remembered us right up until the group’s farewell tour in 2003.
Three of the band’s members later reunited, although Jeff Cook now suffers from Parkinson’s disease and his performance are limited.
Although Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry were the only original members who performed in the New Year’s Eve livestreamed show, watching them on the screen let us relive our early experiences with the iconic band. It was a wonderful way to end a very trying year.
Don Allison is an author, historian and retired editor of The Bryan Times. He can be reached at www.fadedbanner.com.