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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Alabama doesn't disappoint when playing nostalgic songs

Houston Astrodome, Houston, Feb. 17, 2001

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has traditionally been the best time of year for area country fans to see their favorite stars in concert. In recent years, Reba McEntire, Clint Black, and Vince Gill have all been Rodeo regulars.

But the Rodeo has gradually been moving away from country music and toward a greater variety. So this year, McEntire, Black, and Gill are all missing, replaced by acts like Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, Def Leppard and 98 Degrees.

Some country superstars still remain, though. Clay Walker and Alan Jackson played the first two nights, and Brooks & Dunn will play later in the month. But the hottest country ticket so far this year (and second only to Destiny's Child overall) has been Alabama.

After 2-1/2 hours of rodeo action, the stadium lights finally dimmed, and the packed house of 56,795 roared to life. The stage lights came on, and Randy Owen got the crowd started, waving their hands in the air. Then Alabama started playing "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)," and the crowd exploded.

The band ran through a few more hits, including "Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)," "Give It One More Shot" and "Dixieland Delight," with the crowd singing and clapping along every minute.

But when they started playing their new songs, there was a palpable change in the crowd's attitude. Fewer people were clapping along. More were shifting in their seats, or going to the concession stand to get another beer. People didn't seem at all interested in "When It All Goes South" or "Will You Marry Me."

They wanted to hear Jeff Cook playing his lime green electric fiddle. They had no interest in the saxophones and trombone that Alabama seems to be trying to integrate into much of their new music.

And when Owen spent 10 minutes introducing the band and letting everyone play a solo, the crowd became even more disinterested. Sure, Alabama has a capable (and large) backup band, but they're not virtuosos. The three female backup singers performed snippets of "Sweet Home Alabama," "Respect" and "You're No Good."

But the crowd had come to hear Alabama's great hits of the Eighties like "The Closer You Get," not the band's new songs or covers of other artists' songs.

And that's the problem. Alabama is coasting along, resting on their laurels, and as long as they play "Mountain Music," their fans are happy to let them coast. The band is stuck in the Eighties in both their sound and their look. They still perform the sort of country pop that was popular before Clint Black and Garth Brooks turned country around. They even have the same haircuts they had 15 years ago.

And not surprisingly, they look bored with themselves. They've been performing the same hit songs for years, and they can't seem to reinvent themselves for the 21st century. Owen got the crowd excited, but he didn't seem to be excited about his music.

They're the country band of the Eighties, and now their main value is nostalgic. But when they closed with "40 Hour Week," "Song of the South" and "Mountain Music," nostalgia was enough to carry the day.

Alabama may never have another number-one hit, but they could play "Mountain Music" every night in Branson for the next 20 years, and they'll always have an audience.