Songwriter Interviews

Teddy Gentry of Alabama

by Shawna Ortega

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Music of the '80s is probably most defined by hair metal, Michael Jackson, and Madonna, with random Rick Springfield or Whitney Houston thrown in. But the '80s also saw the speed pick up on country's most endurable crossover band's trek across almost all categories of the industry, which continues to this day. Alabama's band of cousins - Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, and Jeff Cook - began an albeit gentle domination (if that's even possible) and took over to the tune of 73 million albums, more collective awards than the Grammys even passes out in any given year, a Star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and their own life-size bronze statues in their hometown of Fort Payne (Alabama). At this point, some 30++ years later, there's more news about them and their accomplishments in the ether than the CIA could corral with a team of 12 agents over a seven-year period.

All that information floating around, yet these guys have virtually the most drama-free history in the country music biz in, well, history. It's as clean as Taylor Swift's, and she's only just begun (who knows what'll happen in her future?). Maybe it's the family connection, maybe it's that they just don't like drama, or maybe it's because they really ARE that good. Whatever the reason is, it's worked for them, it's solidified their unwavering fan base, and it's allowed them to continue sweeping the world with harmonies as sweet as when they first hit the airwaves.

Devout family men, two of whom own and live on ranches (Randy and Teddy), all of whom have had at least mild success, if not chart-toppers, with solo projects, they also give back in whatever ways they can. This includes concerts for various charities and special fan appreciation nights.

The songs they've written are intensely personal. One that Teddy wrote is held so closely he refuses to even discuss it, as we found out. This isn't a bad thing, however. Honesty sells a song, and how can you be more honest than with a song that nearly flattens you with feeling? It's an ingredient Alabama figured out long ago.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about some of the songs you wrote for Alabama.

Teddy Gentry: Yeah. "My Home's In Alabama," "How Do You Fall in Love," "Sad Looking Moon," "Falling Again," "Give Me One More Shot," "Pass It On Down," etcetera, etcetera. Writing is my first love.

Songfacts: Do you mostly compose the music or do you write the lyrics, as well?

Gentry: Both. I make up the melody and the words at the same time. I don't write music, I don't read music. So everything's by ear.

Songfacts: Can you tell me where the seed for "Ride The Train" came from? What inspired that?

Gentry: Well, I was always a big fan of trains, fascinated by them when I was growing up. I heard my grandpa tell stories about how he and his brother used to jump on a train, go to Chattanooga and get off. I always thought that would be cool to do. So it was really kind of an imaginary trip for me to take on a train.

The funny thing about the song is that I had to turn in the title before I wrote it, and I had a time limit on it. So I had to write the song and make the time come out close to the same time that we had listed on the record.

Songfacts: Why would you have to turn in a title first? I'm curious about how that works.
Alabama Fun Fact #1
The Randy Owen-penned "Feels So Right" has been described as "explicit" and almost too intimate for radio. In spite of this, it became the band's fourth #1 country single and first crossover hit, reaching #20 on the Hot 100.


Gentry: We had to turn in the artwork on the project a month before we finished the record. I had that title, and I was fixin' to write an uptempo song about riding the train, so that following week I wrote the song and then we went in and recorded it.

Randy's pretty much the lead singer in the band, but me and Jeff always do a song pretty much every CD, just for diversity.

Songfacts: That was one of our anthems back then. We used to put that one on in the car and blast it. "She's A Lady Down on Love," can you talk to me about that one? It sounds maybe a little autobiographical.

Gentry: Well, Randy actually wrote that song. He was having supper one night and there was a table of girls beside him that were celebrating this lady's divorce. He heard her say that she'd rather be in love with him and not be getting divorced. So that's what inspired the song at the time.

Songfacts: "Pass It On Down" is sort of prophetic, if that's a word. It's as true today as it was when this song came out. You're being world conscious long before Al Gore ever did.

Gentry: My son actually gave me the idea for the song. He was fishing and they had just released a thing telling people not to eat the fish out of the river anymore because there was high lead mercury content in the fish. So we were fishing and my son says, "Daddy, think there'll be fish around when I have a son one of these days?" And he got me to thinking. We got together with the rest of the guys and finished the song.

Songfacts: Has that song ever been optioned for anything to do with the environment, any commercials or anything?

Gentry: Not that I know of.

Songfacts: That seems like that would be perfect. Can you talk to me about "Why Lady Why"?

Gentry: That's a song I wrote while we was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Songfacts: And the inspiration for that?

Gentry: Well, I really can't talk about that.

Songfacts: Can you tell me any memories that you have while recording it?

Gentry: We recorded it before we ever got signed to RCA. That was our third album we recorded while we were in Myrtle Beach of all original stuff, and that was one of the songs that wound up on the first RCA album, My Home's In Alabama.

Songfacts: Was that song extremely personal to you?

Gentry: Well, yeah. Every song I write is personal.
Alabama Fun Fact #2
In the early early days, the guys called themselves "Wild Country."


Songfacts: When you guys decided to put together a band, how did you figure that Randy was going to be the lead singer?

Gentry: Well, that was the natural way that it worked out. I think Randy's one of the most talented singers out there. Jeff had sang lead in bands that he'd been with before, but I always considered myself a harmony singer - I never wanted to be a lead singer. That was the sound: Randy singing the leads, Jeff singing the high part, and me singing the low part was the basis of Alabama harmony.

Songfacts: When Teddy Gentry writes a song and it's a really personal song, like "Why Lady Why," then Randy sings it, how do you feel about that? Is it difficult to hand over your song to somebody else to sing?

Gentry: No. You expect them to do their interpretation of the song.

Songfacts: Have there ever been any instances where he has interpreted one of yours that you have not been happy with?

Gentry: No. You work at things. Don't get hung up on little things.

Songfacts: How did you get into producing?

Gentry: Well, I've produced ever since the first time Alabama went in the studio. We all work at production and then after we got signed with RCA we had a co-producer that worked with us, different ones over the years. You try to learn from all those guys that you work with. But production's something that comes natural, I think. I just love doing it. I love working in the studio.

Songfacts: What is your production style?

Gentry: I have no style. The production is: you're supposed to enhance the song and do the best arrangement you can for the song that you've got. And there's no set formula for it. It's all in your heart. And if it feels good...

Songfacts: You've worked with other artists, such as Emerson Drive, as a producer. What was it like working with them?

Gentry: Well, it's great. Those guys are tremendously talented musicians as well as being good singers. Most of the time when I go in to cut an act, we'll use studio musicians. I do it every day. But in the case of Emerson Drive, those guys were good enough musicians they played all their own stuff. So I think that's a real tip of the hat to those guys.

Songfacts: Was there anything that they presented to you that you had to change quite a lot in order to make it radio-friendly or anything to that effect?

Gentry: No. They're very easy to work with, and they were willing to try anything I asked them to try. It's a working relationship, you've got to work together so that everybody's happy with what you've got. You can't go in with a heavy hand and try to make people do something they don't want to do. So you kind of feel your way through it and make sure everybody's comfortable with what you're doing.

Songfacts: Are there any songs of Alabama's that started out one way that you guys took in a totally different direction?

Gentry: Not off the top of my head. You go in whatever direction the song takes you once you get in the studio.

Songfacts: I read a quote that said "Fallin' Again" is the most heavily edited Alabama song, because there's a big jam session in the middle of it. And I'm curious about that jam session. Is that something that was written into it or spontaneous?

Gentry: Well, nothing's spontaneous with Alabama. Everything is arranged, everything is predetermined: how long we're going to do this, how long we're going to do that.

Probably the most edited song that we've ever done was "My Home Is In Alabama," which was originally about 11 minutes long. It was edited down to six-and-a-half minutes for the single, which was still one of the longest singles ever at radio. Again, that's not unusual for Alabama. And "Falling Again," I'm sure I edited it, your notes are probably right on that. But I'm not sure whether that's the most-edited song we've ever done or not.

In August of 2013, some modern-day big names in the country world joined together and recorded an album of Alabama songs in a show of appreciation for the band that paved the way for them all. On September 30th, 2014, Alabama released a CD/DVD package set of their historic concert at the Ryman Theater, Alabama & Friends at the Ryman, showcasing some of those same artists, many of them superstars in their own right.
Songfacts: Let's talk about your newest CD/DVD package, Alabama and Friends at the Ryman. At the beginning of the concert, Randy says, "We're taping this for two nights." Was the taping actually done over both nights?

Gentry: No. We actually did two shows there, but the first show was a run-through and the second show's the one we recorded.

Alabama Fun Fact #3
As teenagers, the three shared an apartment for $56 a month, where they shaped the three-part harmonies that would embody the distinct Alabama sound, eventually garnering them a ridiculous 21 #1 singles.
Songfacts: Eli Young was one of the guests. During that concert when he got up and sang, he looked like he had died and gone to Heaven. He looked like he couldn't believe that he was on stage with you guys. He actually forgot to sing at one point. Are you guys really close?

Gentry: Not close friends. There are very few people in the music business that I'm close friends with, because you don't get a chance to hang around them much unless you tour with them. People I've toured with I've gotten to know over the years. But the modern day artists, I know them in crossing paths, but they're not people I hang out with on a regular basis.

Songfacts: Tell me about Brad Paisley's song about you, "Old Alabama." How it came about that you appeared on it.

Gentry: Well, Brad called us and said he wrote this song called "Old Alabama" and wanted to know if we'd come in and sing on it. So we all said yes, and went and sang on the tracks. Went to North Carolina and did the video with him, and it was fun. He's a funny guy.

Songfacts: Being a musician, when you haven't written a song and you're playing on it or contributing to it, do you feel like you need to know what the song is about for it to really affect you, for you to be able to play it with feeling?

Gentry: First of all, the song has to touch you in some way. Whether it's melodically or lyrically, the song has to touch you. But it's not necessary that I know what the guy wrote the song about. If it touches me, my own interpretation is just I either like it or I don't like it.

Songfacts: So when people are pitching songs, when you're listening to songs to record that you didn't write, has there ever been a song that one of you has strongly disagreed with?

Gentry: I won't say strongly disagree, but there have been songs that I wasn't crazy about when we first heard them. You wind up cutting them for whatever reason and they turn out to be a hit. But you're not right all the time and you're not wrong all the time.

In a band situation, you've always got to work with other people. It's kind of like a marriage: you don't get total say yourself. So there's always times when you do things that you maybe don't 100 percent agree with, but once a decision is made, you go ahead and put 100 percent into it.

April of 2011 saw one of the deadliest string of tornadoes in memory score deep gullies through Mississippi and Alabama, among several other states, taking houses, businesses, churches, and 350 lives with it. Such devastation so close to home was a wrenching experience for the band, who wrote a song memorializing the event (included on their 2014 album Angels Among Us: Hymns and Gospel Favorites) and performed in a blockbuster 5-hour concert on June 14, 2011, to raise funds for Bama Rising, an organization dedicated to tornado victim relief efforts. All proceeds from the song benefit Bama Rising.
Songfacts: My mom is an artist. She paints. And of all the many, many years that she's been painting pictures, there is one picture that she looks at and says, "This picture has so much of me in it. If you look at this picture, you will know me." What song would you say would have the biggest piece of Teddy Gentry in it?

Gentry: Well, that's every song I write. You write songs about different subjects. Even my song "Give Me One More Shot," it's from the heart.

The song "Raising Alabama" that was on the gospel album that we just did was written about the tornado victims here in Alabama. It was an emotional roller coaster writing that song. I'd sit and cry, write and cry and write.

The song "The Fans" was a very emotional song, a thank you to the people out there who have made Alabama. "I'll Never Be One Again" was written on my daughter's second birthday, very special song, very emotional song. Every song I write has me in it. I couldn't say any one song more than the rest of them. You put all you've got into everything that you write.

Songfacts: Tell me about "Raising Alabama."

Gentry: After we did our farewell tour back in '03, the first show that we did was after the tornadoes went through. Me and Randy and Jeff talked the next day and we said we need to get together and try to do something to help these folks. So we did. We did a couple of concerts and raised quite a bit of money for charity to help tornado victims in our state here.

Songfacts: Lastly, I just have to throw this out there, you're the first one of the band back in '79-'80 that signed a pair of my friend's Levi's. And she just wanted me to tell you that she's still got those Levi's.

Gentry: All right. Good deal.

October 31, 2014
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