Much has changed for the members of Alabama since they left Fort Payne, Alabama, to play in the nightclubs and bars of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, more than 40 years ago. The band — Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook — became one of the most successful acts in both country and pop music, with 40 No. 1 hits. They are the songs you know by heart — “Mountain Music,” “Love in The First Degree” and “Feels So Right” are just a few. Alabama has also received every accolade and award music has to offer including Grammys, American Music Awards, ACMs and CMAs.
Yes, a lot has changed since Alabama played that first Merle Haggard cover in Myrtle Beach.
And now the band faces one of its greatest challenges — carrying on and playing the songs people love without Cook. The Tennessean reported in April that Cook has been diagnosed and is struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Cook’s role in the band has always been large as its lead guitarist, fiddle player and backup vocalist. He’s also co-written some of their biggest hits including “Old Flame” and “Christmas in Dixie.”
Cook is playing a limited role in the band these days, as he said the disease “ has made it extremely frustrating to try and play guitar, fiddle or sing.”
But there’s good news for longtime Alabama fans. Cook is expected to join the band when it hits the Gulf Coast on Saturday. Alabama will headline a show with the Charlie Daniels Band at The Wharf Amphitheater in Orange Beach at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets can still be purchased at Ticketmaster.com. The show is the latest stop on the Southern Drawl tour, which landed in Biloxi in May 2016.
In an interview with the Sun Herald, Gentry discussed having to move on without Cook and the joy he still receives in sharing Alabama’s music with its fans.
You’re playing Orange Beach over Memorial Day weekend. Do you guys enjoying getting down to “LA” — lower Alabama?
We love playing on the Gulf Coast. We got our start playing nine years up in Myrtle Beach. But the atmosphere at The Wharf and being able to play an outdoor show like that is always a lot of fun.
The Charlie Daniels Band is opening the show. You guys have a long history of doing shows with him.
We try to work out something with Charlie every year. I think we’ve played with Charlie since all the way back into the 1990s. Charlie is one of my best friends and our wives are friends. He’s just a good guy. We’ve known him for years. We used to sit around on the bus after sound check and swap stories and songs. I was there when they put Charlie in the (Country Music) Hall of Fame. He’s one of my picks of the litter.
Are you guys playing a lot of dates this summer?
We don’t really tour, at least like we used to, as far as leaving home and being gone for a long time. We do isolated shows — two or three here or there and then we have a couple of weeks off. We have about 30 to 35 shows on the books this year.
I saw where Jeff made his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease public. You guys have been playing together for so long, is it hard when you look over at the microphone stand and Jeff isn’t there?
It’s like losing your right arm. But the music has to go on — you don’t want the music to stop. I still love playing and Randy still loves playing and we’re not ready to give that up. You try and fill in with good people and good musicians and let the music go on. We can’t replace Jeff, there’s no way to replace him. You just try to re-create the best you can. Jeff’s mic will always be there on stage. His place will always be there. He can come out and play or sing or whatever he feels like doing. He’s supposed to join us Saturday night in Orange Beach.
Randy told me you guys used to cover Merle Haggard. I know you recently played the tribute in Nashville. Did you enjoy that?
It was a great honor to be asked to do it. You’re right, the first two songs we ever performed were Merle Haggard songs. We did “Sing Me Back Home” and we had worked up “Silver Wings,” but we didn’t have time to play it. We’ve always been big fans.
When you lose someone like Merle, you can’t replace him. He’s one of the greatest singer/songwriters that ever came down the pipe, in my opinion.
When you guys played that Haggard song for the first time, did you ever think you would still be doing this more than 40 years later?
It’s a blessing. We had no idea what that future would hold. We just wanted to write some music and play some songs and perform them on stage for people. Over the years, we’ve built our own sound. Once we started getting songs on radio, it just grew so fast that it was unbelievable. I still love it. We took a few years off, but I never quit writing songs. I missed the playing, though. When we started back playing, I had a whole new appreciation for it. We still love to go out there and play our music for people. As long as I can still play — I had wrist surgery a few years ago — I want to do it.
As an Alabama fan, there’s nothing better than when the band plays “Lady Down on Love.” Is there a song you look forward to playing during a show?
Honestly, I love playing all of them. I think we’ve written some really good songs and I love to play them live for our fans.
Jeff Cook’s letter to his fans
Approximately four years ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This disease robs you of your coordination, your balance, and causes tremors. I also note that not every case is the same and affects people in different ways. For me, this has made it extremely frustrating to play guitar, fiddle, or sing.
I have tried not to burden anyone with the details of my condition because I do not want the music to stop or the party to end and that won’t change, no matter what.
Let me say, I’m not calling it quits, but sometimes our bodies dictate what we have to do and mine is telling me it’s time to take a break and heal. I do believe in prayer, and I appreciate all the continued prayers through this difficult time.
I love these guys (Randy and Teddy) and I love everyone involved with the group ALABAMA, and especially our fans. I want our fans and everyone involved to know that I do support all the decisions made by Randy and Teddy, as they continue to support mine.
I do plan to be at some of the shows and events when possible, and I hope to see you there.
Just remember, life is good and as long as you’re breathing ... there’s ‘No Bad Days’.