Randy Owen: Sweet Home Alabama

updated 03/11/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/11/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Standing near a window in his Ft. Payne, Ala., home, Randy Owen holds up a printed pillow with a faded black-and-white photo of a thin, bare-chested boy of six holding the reins of a mule. "That's the way I used to look—no shirt, dirty hands," says Owen of his childhood snapshot. "Totally penniless."

As the former frontman for Grammy-winning powerhouse Alabama, and more recently as a solo artist (his first effort, One on One, was released last year), Owen enjoys a far richer life today, but the memory of growing up as a sharecropper's son is never far from him. "When you see your daddy on his knees praying to get through a drought, when you see your parents cry at night because of the things they can't do, till you've lived that, you have no idea how happy that 6-year-old kid is to have achieved success," says Owen, 59, who chronicled his modest childhood in his memoir Born Country, published last fall.

Yet it's the simple pleasures, not the spoils of success, that have kept Owen in Ft. Payne. When his father died in 1980, he vowed to stay close by his mother, Martha, who still lives only a quarter-mile away. "I drive by every morning and toot the horn to tell her hello," he says.

Owen's day begins with a stroll amid the cattle (including a bull named Mr. Clean Genes) on his nearby ranch, accompanied by his golden retriever Hamlet, followed by a cup of decaf with his wife of 34 years, Kelly, 51. Then, "if I have on something that's not awful to look at, I'll go to the Strand for lunch," he says.

Owen and Kelly visit with friends (and, frequently, snap-happy fans) at the downtown mainstay, where his usual—a grilled chicken and spinach salad (he's allergic to lettuce)—has made the permanent menu. "He's just like he always was—a good person," says Strand owner Heath Locklear of Owen, who is embraced as much for his work with charities like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as his musical fame.

Two doors down from the Strand, Owen gestures to Martin's Jewelers. "That's where we bought our wedding rings," he says. A block or so away is the bank where his father would ask for a loan each year to make it through the growing season. "There was a time when this street was so busy, you couldn't walk," Owen says wistfully as he looks down the quiet road.

Not far from the Strand stands the three-story Victorian home Owen bought more than 22 years ago ("a big, beautiful place I never thought I could afford"), where he and Kelly raised their children (Alison, 31, Heath, 27, and Randa, 20) and where family portraits hang near shots of Owen and legends like Dale Earnhardt.

The couple once owned the three neighboring houses—"I thought maybe I'd have three sets of grandchildren all in a row!" he says, laughing. A few years ago he realized his two oldest had moved to Nashville for good, and he sold the homes. His last hope, he says, is that daughter Randa, a student at Auburn University, might just return to his beloved small town.

"If I lived in Nashville or New York, I might have had my own TV show, but I sure wouldn't have had this life," he says. "I feel like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. That's me."

And the kid in the faded photo? "That kid," he says, "is amazed."

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