NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Put the members of Alabama in the same room together and very quickly the jokes start and the laughs roll.
Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry are back together, out on tour playing to thousands every night -- they perform their Back to the Bowery Tour at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, in the Pavilion at Ravinia -- and releasing a new album of duets this week called "Alabama & Friends." And after more than four decades, they feel dusted with good fortune.
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"How could I not be having the time of my life?" bassist Gentry asks. "I'm sitting here with two cancer survivors. I could be here without one of these guys if it went one way instead of another. We feel like we're blessed to be doing this."
There was a time when Alabama was on top of the country music world, winning all the major awards, writing the most popular songs and changing the way country music sounded for good.
The group makes its return as country reaps the benefits of the doors they kicked open back in the late 1970s and '80s when they helped move the genre from the state fair and community center circuit into a local arena near you.
"We brought a lot of rock principles as far as live shows to the country music arena for the first time as far big sound systems, moving lights," Cook said. "We played hard even though we were playing country music. Looking back, we were renegades at the time -- tennis shoes, T-shirts, long hair -- it's no different than today."
Alabama, in fact, is counted as one of country's most beloved acts 15 years after its last hit single. Content to sit it out over much of the last decade, the band decided to give it another go after coming back together to organize a benefit for tornado victims in their home state last year.
They may never have been accepted by the folks down on Music Row, but they're part of the bedrock for today's top stars. Guests on the album include Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan. And for many, the band still defines country stardom. Bryan says that when he's onstage, he's aiming for the same reaction he remembers Alabama getting at its peak.
"When I reference Randy Owen, I think of my mama," Bryan said. "When I was 5 (years old), my mother was a 35-year-old Southern woman, and every 35-year-old Southern woman, all they wanted to do was jump Randy Owen's bones. If I'm accomplishing that, that's a good thing. That's cool."
Owen and the boys still have the ability to get them stirred up. They made a swing through Florida a few weeks ago and were amazed by the response they got.
"I know that we had some fans and still do," Owen said. "I wish you could have been in St. Augustine. Augustine was drifting on back to 1983, 1984. It was crazy. Couple of times we stopped and just let them sing."