Alabama: Patient zero of pop countryBy Patrick Carr Alabama starts out as a cover band. They are a bar band. They are extremely competent musicians. They are not very bright. They are not very creative. They don’t have the kind of soul that Waylon Jennings has or Willie Nelson has. They don’t have stuff burning up inside them that they need to communicate. They are not the same kind of artist as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or John Lenon and Bob Marley. They are good journeyman musicians. What they are used to doing is covering the top-40 hits. Every night, people would shout out requests from the audience and these guys would be able to play that if they wrote it. They can pretty much play anything you tell them to play. All they need is for someone else to write the music. God knows they couldn’t do it on their own. So, this cover band from Fort Payne is recruited by Harold Shedd, a producer for RCA in Nashville. Harold takes them under his wing and finds a bunch of songs for them and puts together an album. The songs are all pretty much middle-of-the-road, mid-tempo, slightly-country-accented, soft rock and roll. The sound goes with the look of the band as they were kind of hip looking with longish hair. They looked kind of rock and roll, but they didn’t sound particularly rock and roll. They didn’t sound real threatening or anything. That was important early on. They wanted to cater to the softer, less serious country music fan. These guys were like denatured country and defanged rock and roll all kind of wrapped up into this nice little package. They are kind of cute and they are just right for the time. It goes without saying, they go over big. Alabama was one of the biggest first-time-out sellers for years and years in the country market. Their main fans were teenage girls which was just wonderful if you were concerned about the industry. With brainless, hormone-driven consumers, the Nashville music industry would survive. That was just the meal ticket the industry had needed. If you understand things in those terms, then you understand everything that happened subsequently in country music. Right around the time that Alabama first hit was also when Randy Travis first hit. Randy was very much the same kind of deal as Alabama. Randy was a very technically accomplished singer with a very good voice, but not a brain in his head and with no ambition to write or possessing no particular artistic creative drive. He was just a really good singer and he had a really good producer. Behind the producer were some really good song writers. Right there, you have the basic template for modern country which is the basic template for pre-outlaw country too: You have a machine, a production machine of pop country. Everybody has their job in that machine. You have your song writers. You have your producers and then you have your artists. The artist’s job is to show up on time, put on a good show, and don’t embarrass anybody. In terms of the actual music, the really important parts of the machine happen before the artists get to it. It’s the producers and the song writers and the people who make the whole thing work, not the artists. They are just pretty puppets for the machine. For the most part, that is still the system that you have today. It’s not a bad gig if you want to be famous for having a pretty face and because you sing someone else’s songs. But if you have true passion and talent and you look the part of someone who has lived a real life, the machine won’t accept you as a public artist. You will be thrown into the darkness like Quasimodo and told to create music for one of its puppet performers. If you don’t want fame and attention, you can be happy with your career in Nashville’s shadows. If your ambition is to stand in the spotlight at center stage and develop your own audience who connects with your music on a deeper level, Nashville can be hell on earth.
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