Alabama’s Gospel Album

Hometown Heroes, People
on April 22, 2007
Jeff Cook, Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Mark Herndon have quit touring, but are still making music.

Randy Owen, lead singer of the country group Alabama, had a couple of very good reasons for wanting to make a CD of gospel music.

“There were some songs that I felt like I had to record to make my soul semi-complete,” he says. “And, of course, I wanted to make my mother happy.”

Owen’s mom, Martha, must be beaming. Alabama’s latest album, Songs of Inspiration, Vol. II, the follow-up to last year’s surprise hit of the same name, is full of classic church songs. Both projects were Owens’ idea.

Despite all the band’s achievements over the last three decades—induction into in the Country Music Hall of Fame, more than 40 No. 1 hits and 150 awards—Songs of Inspiration was the group’s first album to debut atop the Billboard country albums chart, indicating an out-of-the-box sales explosion.

More important than the project’s success, however, is the way in which both Songs of Inspiration albums reconnected the members of country music’s most successful band with their childhoods. “The Alabama guys grew up in the church, so this is second nature to them,” says Sony BMG Nashville Chairman Joe Galante, who had been planning the Songs of Inspiration project with the band for more than a decade.

The new CD features Alabama’s renditions of such hymnbook standards as “Church in the Wildwood,” “Precious Memories,” “Love Lifted Me,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Lonesome Valley.” Owens’ parents were musicians who sang at churches all over northern Alabama when he was a child. “My mama’d play piano, and sometimes sing,” he recalls. “My sisters would sing harmony.” Martha still plays piano at the Rainsville Community Church in Rainsville, Ala. (pop. 4,499). Randy’s father, Gladstone, died in 1980.

Owen and his wife, Kelly, attend the First Methodist Church in Fort Payne, Ala. (pop. 12,938), his hometown and the organizational base of the band. He says his faith has sustained him during his experiences in the topsy-turvy music business. “There’s a goodness about faith that helps you through the tough times,” he says. “It lets you rejoice with the successes, and yet have a deeper meaning in your life.”

Alabama retired from touring in 2004. Since then, Owen, 57, has spent much of his time writing songs, and he completed the most recent season as a judge on the popular USA Network TV talent show Nashville Star. He also performed on the Christian Country Music Association’s Inspirational Country Music Awards show last November, extending Alabama’s reach into the gospel music community.

“To have someone like Randy Owen do a gospel album and sing on our awards show is miraculous,” says CCMA Founder and President Gene Higgins. “It’s wonderful. It broadens the base.”

In the wake of the band’s retirement from the road, the rest of the group has kept busy as well. Bass player Teddy Gentry, 55, has become a record producer; guitarist Jeff Cook, 57, has a new duo called Cook & Glenn; and drummer Mark Herndon, 51, is a corporate jet pilot.

The members have been spending plenty of time with their families, too. All four are married with children and continue to live in Alabama. Randy has two daughters and a son, Mark and Jeff each have one daughter, and Teddy has a son and daughter, plus five grandchildren. Their kids are related to one another, as Owen, Gentry and Cook are cousins who all grew up in or around Fort Payne.

Alabama will continue to make music together, says Owen, even if the band won’t be taking their show on the road anymore. “All we said was that we weren’t planning on touring,” he says. “We didn’t close any doors to anything else.”

That may even include a third volume of Songs of Inspiration. “I’d love to do it,” he says. “And I’d like to keep on doing it as long as I’m able.”