J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Friday, February 02, 2018

Long Player #4 :
Alabama - Feels So Right
Alabama - The Closer You Get..

The scene is some academic summer camp or another when I'm seven years old. We're eating lunch in the cafeteria and one of the older kids, for whatever reason, asks me who my favorite band is. My answer?


I remember this very vividly. I also remember the other kids kind of snickering for some reason. (Though it probably explains why I remember it. I was always a sensitive soul.)

The music in my household growing up was predominantly country radio. That and NPR and talk radio. Neither of my parents are the kind of music heads that I would become, but they enjoy good music. And so I had my ears full of the stuff on the radio in the 80s - Alabama, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ronnie Millsap, Kathy Matea, Aaron Tippin and on and on. And it's interesting to see how these things manifested themselves in my adult listening experience. Who knows if I would've given Son Volt the time of day in high school if not for the country influence.

I turned away from country radio and embraced rock around the time of the Garth Brooks revolution, so I've always sort of tagged him as the dividing line between more traditional country and the slick pop that defines the radio genre now. But I had a bit of an awakening about this when tackling these two albums. Garth, rather, was mastering something that had been in the works for some time. But let's get back to Alabama.

Alabama's first album was released in 1976, so by the time we get to 1981's Feels So Right, their second for a major and fifth overall, they were hitting their peak. Let's review how good the 80s were for this band. They released 9 studio albums (not counting a 1985 Christmas album) in the decade, only one of which (1980's My Home's In Alabama) didn't reach #1 on the Country albums chart. Every one of these 9 albums is certified platinum - the two I'm discussing today, 4 times platinum each. They never had another number one album after the 80s. They didn't have one before. So clearly, the 80s were something pretty special for the boys from Alabama.

It's a bit of a fascinating story. The three main members are all cousins, having started the band under a different name in 1969. So it probably explains a lot of what I found out by actually, for the first time in my life, listening to a complete album by them: they were just as rooted in the genre-hopping classic rock of bands like the Doobie Brothers as they were their country lineage. There are songs that dive into muted soul and r&b exercises, some that come close to out-and-out rocking a bit, and the ones that actually come fully into the country mode. The only part of an Alabama album that always hues close to the country playbook are the lyrics. But even there, they're just a Southern state reference away from it being a pretty down-the-middle pop exercise.

Two things I've thought about a lot while listening to these albums, beyond how enjoyable I've actually found them, is that while I like them, I'm not sure I'd actually go up to anyone and say: "Dude, but seriously. Check out The Closer You Get." If not for the obvious attachment of nostalgia to my childhood, I don't know that I could successfully argue that you were missing out on anything by not diving into the Albama oeuvre. Want to better understand 1980s country radio? Well, then, absolutely, come on aboard. Otherwise, you're good.

The other obvious problem, as you can see in the photo, is the Confederate flag. Four of their best selling records from this period have the flag predominantly featured. This one on the cover of Feels So Good is relatively subtle compared to the near dominance of it on some of the other covers. It's the kind of thing that makes me a bit unsure of how to treat this part of my musical background. I literally don't own another record with that image on it. But Alabama's songs are pure pop songs mostly rooted in love stories. There's not a whiff of politics on any of it, which is, of course, why the flag is there. It's just a cultural totem, probably more commercial choice than ideological one. The flag disappears by the late 80s, though it makes a small appearance on an early 90s greatest hits collection cover.

So how to deal with that? It's troubling, but I also can understand it not as something inherently racist here - but just inherently, and willfully blind to what it could be otherwise. If you're only surrounded by people who embrace the flag from the 'heritage' perspective, maybe you just don't think about it. I don't know if the members of Alabama were ever questioned retroactively about their use of the flag. (That great discussion Tom Petty gave about his band's use of it for the Southern Accents tour is a pretty great example of someone owning past ignorance and doing it gracefully and respectfully.) But it'd be a good question to ask them at some point. At the same time it makes me hesitate to even keep the one record around. Or to pull it out. Or to even try to make an argument for why the music on it is solid. Regardless, let's rank the songs:

Feels So Right

10. Woman Back Home
9. See the Embers, Feel the Flame
8. Ride the Train
7. Hollywood
6. I'm Stoned
5. Feels So Right
4. Burn Georgia Burn
3. Old Flame
2. Fantasy
1. Love in the First Degree

The Closer You Get...

10. Lovin' Man
9. Dixie Boy
8. Dixieland Delight
7. Alabama Sky
6. Very Special Love
5. Red River
4. What in the Name of Love
3. The Closer You Get
2. Lady Down on Love
1. She Put the Sad In All His Songs

Next Week: Oh, boy. We go further down the questionable road with not one, not two, but three Woody Allen stand up albums: Woody Allen; Woody Allen, Vol. 2; and Standup Comic : 1964 - 1968



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