Written by Randy Owen
#1 (1 week)
August 16, 1980
In many ways, the arrival of Alabama is the arrival of eighties country.
They got their start in their namesake state, as three cousins – Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, and Jeff Cook – came together as a band in the early seventies. The band took a long, hard road to success, with all three of the founding members working real world jobs while they played local theme parks on the weekends and clubs at night. Once they committed to the band full time, they relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they became wildly popular on the local scene.
They rotated through drummers while recording three independent albums. A series of singles for MDJ Records charted in the late seventies, just as proficient drummer Mark Herndon joined the band, completing their Hall of Fame-destined lineup. When “My Home’s in Alabama” cracked the top twenty, they performed at the Country Radio Seminar, which led to a contract with RCA.
Their new label purchased their MDJ masters, allowing for those singles to be included in their RCA debut album, My Home’s in Alabama. Their first standalone single for the label was “Tennessee River,” and it became their first No. 1 hit.
“Tennessee River” is being covered as a single here, so it’s important to note that the studio and radio version of this song is incomplete. The entire second verse is eliminated, which interrupts the narrative flow of an otherwise excellent lyric. Perhaps it’s because I have family in Scottsboro, Alabama and have driven these roads and mountains myself. I think Owen captured the feel of the area and the connection to the land felt by generations in his songwriting.
The musical breakdown at the end would be revisited on other Alabama records, so it’s easy to miss how fresh this sound must have been at the time. The label made the choice to remove the second verse so that radio could get to play that breakdown and still keep this record from a brand new act at a reasonable running time, but they should’ve at least let the band keep it on the album version.
The live version of this song is the best way to listen to it, with Owen delivering the lost verse with real verve. That version, which also appears on their Greatest Hits album, is essential listening. Still, it’s hard to argue with a label choice that kicks off a record-shattering string of 21 consecutive No. 1 hits.
The single version of “Tennessee River” gets a B+.
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