Houston Astrodome, Houston, Feb. 24, 1998
HOUSTON - It's not every day that you get to see a country Artist of the Decade. Not even during Rodeo season, when artists like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, LeAnn Rimes, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire all perform at the Houston Astrodome within a two-week period.
But on the last Tuesday of February, country music's Artist of the Decade for the Eighties, Alabama, performed an incredible 50-minute set to an adoring crowd, focusing on their classic hits but throwing in a few recent songs.
First, however, was one of country's best traditional singers, Sammy Kershaw. He lent his nasal, George Jones-esque voice to "Love of My Life," his recent run-of-the-mill ballad, but after that came three of his best songs.
"Cadillac Style" was the top-five hit that introduced us to Kershaw back in 1991, and it sounds even better today, in a time when such great hard-core country songs are few and far between.
During "Queen of My Double Wide Trailer," one of many hilarious songs written by Dennis Linde. The whole crowd sang along on the chorus, and Kershaw appeared to be having a blast on stage, hamming it up with big hand motions to go along with lines like, "He's the Charlie Daniels of the torque wrench."
He ended his show all too soon with the melodic midtempo song, "Vidalia," and then got into the back of a pickup truck for his lap around the floor of the Astrodome. The bed of the truck turned out to be full of Mardi Gras beads, which Kershaw threw into the crowd as the truck slowly made its way around the stadium.
Alabama came onstage singing a few lines a cappella as the introduction to the very appropriate opening song "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)." Randy Owen was in fine voice, and Jeff Cook's fiddling sounded great, too. The crowd loved every second of it - when Owen yelled, "Cotton Eyed Joe," thousands of fans yelled it with him.
After a pretty guitar intro, they played the recent hit "Sad Lookin' Moon." As good a song as it is, it's the kind of midtempo song that doesn't translate well to live shows.
When they stuck to the classics, however, Alabama had the entire crowd in the palm of their collective hands. For the next song, they went back to one of their earliest hits, the 1981 number-one "Love in the First Degree." Teddy Gentry and Cook's background vocals complemented Owen's strong lead very well.
During "Dixieland Delight" Owen got the entire crowd clapping and stomping along to the music, and the band even sang one chorus backed only by the crowd's enthusiastic clapping.
It was clear why Alabama is such a popular band. Despite frequent scorn from country music critics, they're a good band, led by Owen's soulful lead vocals and backed by fine instrumentation.
But more importantly, the guys in Alabama are some of the best entertainers in country music. It's been nearly 30 years since they formed the group called Wildcountry in Fort Payne, Ala., that eventually turned into country's biggest supergroup.
In those 30 years, they've learned how to keep a crowd dancing, clapping, and singing along throughout an entire show. If they never recorded another hit song - and that's hardly likely - thousands of fans would still come to every one of their shows to hear them perform their classic hits.
On this night, those classics included "Song of the South," "Forty Hour Week," more recent hits, "Dancin', Shaggin' on the Boulevard" and "Give Me One More Shot." They finally closed their show with the 1982 number-one hit "Mountain Music."
Are they country? Are they rock? In Alabama's heyday in the mid-Eighties, that was a popular debate. Nowadays, when so many so-called country artists veer so far from the traditional, Alabama may be more country than most. But however their music is classified, it's impossible to deny the entertainment value of one of their live shows.