There aren’t really any mountains, cotton farms or remnants of Dixieland in our northern state, but Minnesotans apparently love to hear songs on those topics anyway. How else to explain the fact that veteran country band Alabama returned to the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday night for a record-setting 19th performance?
Twenty-five years removed from their commercial heyday — during which they became the biggest-selling country group of all time — the deeply Southern harmonizers hit the grandstand once again, as they have done more than any other performers in fair history.
Thursday’s show was the first time back at the fair for bandmate cousins Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook since ending their 10-year hiatus from touring in 2013. They also had their first new album in 14 years to promote, “Southern Drawl.”
As sure as their shout-outs to our troops, St. Jude’s Hospital and Chevy pickups, though — all causes they’ve steadfastly supported — they gave the crowd many of the same songs they delivered their first time at the fair in 1982 (and again in ’83, ’84, ’85, ’87 … ).
Right out of the gate, the trio and its six-piece backing band treated the 7,255 fans to three of the biggest Alabama hits: “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band),” “Tennessee River” and “Dixieland Delight.” They then saved the biggest, “Mountain Music,” for the end.
Sporting the same thick hair and beard he had in the ’80s (but with a certain lighter shade), frontman Owen held his microphone out for the crowd to sing “Dixieland Delight.” And then he did it two more times as the band reprised the song twice for the crowd to sing some more, a trick Alabama could have trademarked.
It’s a testament that a lot of fans — many of whom were old enough to have driven themselves to the band’s 1982 concert — didn’t sit down until about 40 minutes into the show during a pair of tender ballads, “Feels So Right” and “Lay Down on Love.” Those songs especially showed how well the trio’s voices have held up. Their family harmonies still sounded as thick as Owen’s coiffure with only minimal support from the backing musicians.
Gentry and Cook each took turns on lead vocals, too, the former in the technology-cranky new tune “Turn It Off,” and the latter to helm Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues.” Owen remarked how much Alabama was influenced by “the Hag,” who sang on the same stage this time last year, just seven months before his death.
“The first song we ever performed was a Merle Haggard song, and the second was a Merle Haggard song,” he said. “He was the greatest there will probably ever be in country music.”
Later, the bandleader name-dropped some of the newer acts Alabama has influenced. Most prominently, Luke Bryan was mentioned before “Love In the First Degree,” a song the young-buck country megastar covered.
Compared with Bryan’s own mega-sized, action-packed show two weekends ago at U.S. Bank Stadium — or even to the Dixie Chicks’ glitzy grandstand sets last weekend — Alabama was a total zero in the showmanship department, unless you count Cook’s impression of Mel Tillis’ stuttering a show. What was good in 1982, however, was more than good enough in 2016.