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Alabama Reaches the Top in Country Music, and Not Just by Whistling Dixie

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The motto of the state of Alabama is "We dare defend our rights." The motto of the country music group Alabama isn't much different, says lead singer Randy Owen: "Nobody ever gave us a break. We had to make our own."

After 10 years of struggling, the quartet has become the best-known Cotton State group this side of Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide football teams. In the last two years Alabama has picked up one platinum and two gold LPs. Their just-released Mountain Music hit No. 1 on the country charts, and their previous two albums are still in the Top 20. The group also swept up prizes for Instrumental Group of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year at the most recent Country Music Awards. As a concert attraction, Alabama is rivaling Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell.

How has this happened? "I couldn't count how many people are better guitar players or better singers or better songwriters than I am," admits Owen, 32. "Other groups can play our songs probably as good as we can. But we've stuck together."

Since the group was first formed by three cousins and a friend in 1972, its endurance has been tested by a touring schedule that kept it on the honky-tonk circuit 330 days some years. Chugging from gig to gig in a beat-up Dodge van (known as "the Blue Goose"), the musicians took turns driving. "After six months another group would've given up," says Owen. "As soon as some people have problems they go off and cry about it." Testifies lead guitarist Jeff Cook, 32, "We're like four individuals until someone starts messing with us, then we become one." Adds Owen, "Everything else is secondary to our music. My wife will even tell you that our lives have revolved around what was best for the band."

From the outset, Alabama took a businesslike approach. It incorporated itself, with the members drawing subsistence salaries and pooling funds to stay solvent. "We started playing music as a business rather than just treating it like a big party," explains Owen.

The group made a living but little more and got a setback in 1979 when its drummer of five years, Rick Scott, dropped out. The three cousins—Owen, Cook and bassist Teddy Gentry—finally hired a Yankee, Mark Herndon of Springfield, Mass., as a replacement. Not long after, a tiny, Dallas-based label, MDJ Records, put up the money for a single. To promote their debut record, I Want to Come Over, the foursome split up when they hit new towns and individually besieged local deejays. Their record finally muscled its way onto the country charts, and their follow-up, the native-son anthem My Home's in Alabama, hit No. 17.

Just after RCA offered the group a long-term contract, Alabama's manager, Larry McBride, found himself in jail. Unknown to the group, he had been awaiting sentence for a 1978 conviction for fraud and conspiracy in Texas. McBride was released from prison in March, but he and Alabama have parted professional ways. Says Owen, "We appreciate what he did, and it's nothing personal against Larry, but now we don't have anything to do with him." McBride, who now lives in Atlanta, Ga., says he is considering contesting his settlement with Alabama.

The Alabama organization, which currently includes a crew of 37, two tractor-trailers, four trucks and four buses, prides itself on apple-pie uprightness. "Our road crew has voluntarily given up even drinking a beer while they're setting up or tearing down a show," says Herndon, 26. "That way, when they hit the road they can have two or three cases if they want." Explains Owen, "We have to be careful about what the young people see in us." (The group admits to having taken amphetamines in the past—to stay awake driving—but those are out now, too.)

Alabama is also as patriotic as its collective hero, John Wayne. ("He stuck to what he believed in," Owen says. "I like people who don't back away from criticism.") Herndon is jokingly accused of being "a Communist" because he owns a Toyota. He pleads, "It's the same car I had when I was nearly starving. It's a good car. Besides, it's paid for."

Each of the group maintains a home in Fort Payne (pop. 11,485), where Owen, Gentry and Cook grew up flirting with poverty. "I know all these people," says Randy of his neighbors. "I know their mama and daddy. I know where I used to plow with the tractor and where I learned to swim. I don't want to get lost in a big crowd." Adds Gentry: "I need to be here to take care of the people who took care of me when I was growing up." At the same time, Owen admits the band has ambitions. "We started off making a few dollars," he says. "Then we wanted to make a record. Then we wanted a hit record. Then we wanted the nominations. It's a never-ending process of wanting to be bigger and go further."

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