Brian Mansfield, USA TODAY
Back in June, Alabama's Teddy Gentry picked up fans waiting to get into the group's annual fan-appreciation concert in Fort Payne, Ala., to play them some new music.
"I pulled up in my car and would get three or four of them at a time and play them one of the new songs," says the bassist, 63. "Some of them would get out with tears running down their faces. Then I'd get three or four more. I did that for two hours."
The songs Gentry played that day came from Southern Drawl, due Sept. 18 from BMG Chrysalis North America. It will be the band's first album of new songs in 14 years.
The new album and new tours will introduce the band to fans too young to have known its music the first time around, says Bob Romeo, CEO of the Academy of Country Music, which gave Alabama its top-entertainer award a record five consecutive times. "They'll play to a new generation that didn't know them back in the '80s. I think that's exciting.
"When they came on the scene, that was the introduction of the country-rock sound" to country music, Romeo says. "It changed the shape of country music. It opened the doors for some of the stars of today."
Founded more than 40 years ago by cousins Gentry, Randy Owen and Jeff Cook, Alabama became the most successful band in country music history, selling millions of albums at levels unprecedented for country acts. Their certifications from the Recording Industry Association of American for 46 million albums shipped places them alongside Journey and Guns N' Roses in overall totals.
The group also has topped the country charts with hits like Mountain Music, Feels So Right and If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band). In all, Alabama has had more than 40 No. 1 hits, more than the band possibly could play in a single concert.
"That's a great problem to have," says the group's frontman, Randy Owen, 65. "And you know what? I want more. And more. And more."
Southern Drawl also is the first step in a renovation of the Alabama brand, a long-term project that includes major upgrades to the Alabama Fan Club and Museum in Fort Payne and plans for a documentary and book about the band.
"Alabama's so iconic, historic," says Tony Conway, who began managing the group last year. "Somebody needs to watch over this work, this talent, and do some things that haven't been done before."
The band has already added the title track from Southern Drawl to its recent sets. It's a brawny, good-humored country stomper, the sound of an Alabama picking up a few tricks from fans like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney, who are making big records now.
"Country music when we took our vacation is not the same country it is today," guitarist Jeff Cook says. "For people who knew the original Alabama, it's going to be a little different to their ears."
Other songs will sound more familiar, like American Farmer, which follows in the tradition of blue-collar anthem Forty Hour Week (For a Livin'), and Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler), which paid tribute to truck drivers.
Alison Krauss guests on one track, Come Find Me. "She sang some harmony on the bridge with Randy and me and played fiddle, too," says Gentry, who invited her to the studio after he contributed harmony to a pair of songs for Krauss' upcoming album. "I thought of her and thought it'd be neat to have her voice on there."
Wasn't Through Lovin' You Yet, a pulsing romantic ballad, is the album's first single.
Alabama's "Southern Drawl," out Sept. 18 on BMG Chrysalis North America, is the group's first album of new music in 14 years. (Photo: Courtesy of BMG Chrysalis North America)
A decade ago, the members of Alabama appeared to have wrapped up their career together. After the 2001 album When It All Goes South, the group embarked on a farewell tour that ended in October 2004.
They rarely appeared together until Brad Paisley reassembled them for his 2011 single Old Alabama.
"I think what got Alabama back together was Brad Paisley," Cook says. "He called us in to sing some lines from Mountain Music into Old Alabama."
A month after Paisley released his single, an outbreak of tornadoes devastated parts of the South, killing hundreds of people. The state of Alabama took the brunt of the destruction, and Owen, Gentry and Cook assembled an all-star benefit concert in Birmingham that raised more than $1 million.
"That's what really brought us out of retirement," Gentry says. "After being off the road for a few years, I guess getting together and playing brought back the element of why we got together to start with — because it was fun. It had gotten to the point where it wasn't as much fun."
In 2013, the band joined in an Alabama & Friends album that found them re-recording hits like Love in the First Degree, Tennessee River and I'm in a Hurry (And Don't Know Why) with contemporary stars like Bryan, Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. The album made its debut at No. 8 on the Billboard albums chart but fell off quickly, leaving Owen dissatisfied with the way the project was promoted.
"I was very surprised after that fiasco that anybody would have any interest in anything we did," he says.
Gospel music great Bill Gaither and his Gaither Music Group label did, however, and had the band record a gospel album. It was released last year through Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.
"I could never say thanks to Bill Gaither enough for believing in us and doing the gospel CD," Owen says. "That set the tone for us being able to go in and do this project."
The relationship with Cracker Barrel continues for Southern Drawl. Also, the band will appear on QVC in August to sell the album. Fans who pre-order from the shopping channel will receive an additional disc of live recordings.
"We've got 100,000 hard copies sold between Cracker Barrel, QVC and our fan club members, just for putting out an album," Gentry says.
"So many people are lining up to be supportive of Alabama," says BMG Chrysalis executive vice president Kos Weaver, who heads the label's Nashville divions. "I feel like they've made a competitive record on a lot of fronts, something that radio will play and something country music fans will get excited about."
After returning to the road in 2013, Alabama continues to play 25 to 30 shows each year. The band will play the Ohio State Fair in Columbus Aug. 4 and Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam Aug. 12 in Nashville. The group also has booked a three-night stand at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center for next may.
"I'm so thankful people care about the music we made," Owen says. "They still come to the concerts, and they're very enthusiastic. Hopefully, this new music will be something they'll enjoy. I put everything I had in it.
"It's amazing that three people who see the world through very different eyes could come to the decision to put together and get it done and do a new CD."