Watching Alabama’s Randy Owen shake his hips and swing across the stage reminiscent of how (I assume) he did more than 20 years ago, you can’t help but be impressed.
The man is in love with his music and, even more, in love with sharing it with a crowd. Which is what he and the rest of the band did for more than 90 minutes Thursday on opening night of Country Jam USA on the festival grounds in the town of Union west of Eau Claire.
Owen prevailed, despite on-again, off-again downpours, to rouse the crowd and move them with the music, singing Alabama classics such as “Song of the South” and “Born Country” as the crowd lifted their hands in the air, singing Owen’s lyrics right back to him.
He made sure to include his band mates as well, joking along with them on stage about their greatest moments. More than once he found himself playing guitar alongside Teddy Gentry. The group may not move as much as they used to, but they’ve still got a comfortable chemistry on stage that keeps them compelling.
This is, after all, a band who has had 42 No. 1 hits since it formed in 1969, including 21 straight No. 1 singles. In that time they’ve completed seven multi-platinum albums and been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Currently on their “The 2018 Greatest Hits Tour,” they had plenty to choose from.
To say they are talented would be an understatement. What the concert showcased, more than anything, is a group of men who have accomplished what most country musicians can only dream of — and are still fortunate enough to share their music.
If you were looking for the pop-country tunes of (equally, but in different ways, talented) musicians such as Luke Bryan, you were in the wrong place Thursday night. Alabama’s music is down-home, boot-stomping, lost-my-woman crooning, classic country. And in that sense, they delivered.
Tunes such as “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why)” brought the crowd back to simpler times with lyrics like, “I’m in a hurry to get things done, I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die, but I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.”
Other songs captured exactly how talented a group of musicians the men truly are, with countless instrumental solos on drums, guitar and fiddle (especially for “If You Want to Play in Texas” — obviously).
Owen dedicated the evening to two cousins whom he said passed away recently. The group itself, of which Owen is a founder, is made up of three cousins (Owen, Gentry and Jeff Cook).
These men may be getting older, but they still gave it their all. Despite the walkway becoming slippery with rain, Owen continued throughout the evening to walk out into the crowd, signing a woman’s glass, shaking hands and swapping cowboy hats with a fan. He jumped, spun and shook his hips like a little kid, getting equally excited when the crowd screamed his lyrics back to him.
The evening drew to a close as rain persisted, coming down steadily heavier and thinning the crowd slightly. But Alabama fans remained.
Just before rain broke out for the second time, Owen called the crowd’s attention: “We want you to sing along with us, but you gotta learn the words.”
As the band broke into the well-known rhythm of “Song of the South,” the crowd began to cheer. As Owen called the first line, “Song, song of the south,” into the night, the crowd shot right back at him, “sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth.” No teaching necessary.
With the rain still coming down just hard enough to be a nuisance, Owen thanked the crowd for coming out. The band members turned away, the lights went dark and people began to walk away.
But could it be? An Alabama concert without the Alabama classic “Mountain Music”?
Gotchya. To the surprised delight of the remaining crowd, the drummer kicked it into high gear, followed by a few quick riffs on the electric guitar. Clapping and boot-stomping ensued for a rousing encore, and through the woods all the way to the parking lot the night filled with a tune you can’t help but sing along to: “Oh play me some mountain music. Like Grandma and Grandpa used to play. Then I'll float on down the river to the Cajun hideaway.”
Well played, Alabama. Well played.
The fun continues today with artists LOCASH, Dustin Lynch and Billy Currington taking over the main stage beginning at 5:15 p.m. Gates open at 1 p.m. For a complete schedule, visit countryjamwi.com.
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