Friends were visiting from Vermont and they randomly chose to go to a concert by the band ALABAMA. They didn’t know much about them, but it was the best option for that night. I hadn’t paid close attention, and thought we were going to a rare performance of Alabama 3, the creators of Cold Harbor Lane, a dark CD which tells the story of a drug-addled evangelical pastor who becomes an atheist or something, and quotes from Mao Tse Tung, among others. Because the concert was not sold out, we got bargain seats in the third row of the orchestra.
At 8:00, a fellow in blue jeans leapt from the wings to fervently remind us that ALABAMA had had 42 (43, 48? I wasn’t taking notes) number one hits, “A record!” There was wildness in the room, and “The guys from ALABAMA are right backstage waiting to perform for you!” brought the rows in front of us to their feet, waving their arms back and forth pentacostally.
It didn’t take long to realize this was not Alabama 3, it was country music with a driving rock beat and not a whisper of Mao Tse Tung.
I liked how the principals of ALABAMA don’t even pretend to go to the gym. They are Everymen, and if you add the audience, it was an Everyman’s holiday. I’m more a Fulfill-Your-Individual-Potential person – a Yankee girl, not a “Dixie Dream” (as ALABAMA phrases it), clearly out of place.
Every time the lead singer, Randy (I’m sure he would prefer I call him by his first name), turned the microphone to the audience and let them take the song, they were prepared. They knew the lyrics as well as the band members did. I wondered how a band could be so popular, so revered, and yet I had never heard their songs. That’s a reflection on me.
Occasionally Randy ceded the microphone to Jeff or Teddy, and walked to the back of the stage to sit next to the drums like a man waiting for a sandwich in a deli.
The beat pulsed, the five guitars played, the keyboards added their filigree, and the men sang a well-matched close harmony that reminded me of The Beatles and the Eagles. That’s where the similarities ended. There was no Joe Walsh phasing into manic virtuosity or George Harrison gliding into the harmonies of India or rhythms other than 4/4. This was vanilla – easily digestible, no surprises.
I couldn’t understand the lyrics most of the time, but I made out the gist – I love you when you look at me, sleep with me, dance with me, talk to me, and touch me, especially when you get old, or look like you might be going away, also, I have been a schmuck sometimes. There were a few reverences to grandma or Tennessee/Alabama/Kentucky.
The driving beat and unrelentingly romantic lyrics had an aphrodisiac effect on the couples around us. Women popped up and started waving their arms more often than the men. As these Dixie Dreams got into jumping up and down and screaming, the men rose to join them, and then the women kissed them and caressed their butts.
Living in the New York metropolitan area, I have recently gotten used to seeing homosexual couples everywhere I go, from church to restaurants to rock concerts. They must have been there all along, but they no longer have to hide their affections so I’ve only recently noticed. They were missing at this concert, or perhaps the Confederate flag waving and clothing featuring the Stars & Stripes discouraged them from holding hands, and that felt strange.
One man in a huge cowboy hat stood throughout the concert, shouting at Randy and poking his index fingers at him more and more aggressively. He wasn’t threatening Randy, though I would have found it unsettling to have someone so out of control jabbing his finger at me.
As the evening progressed, ALABAMA laid out more and more cultural markers. Before beginning one song, Randy shouted into the microphone, “Let’s support our troops wherever they may be serving all around the world” and the crowd whooped and hollered. That statement means something different to me than what it meant to the cheering crowd. A decade of war, thousands of fractured returning soldiers, and a trillion dollars or so of unfunded expenditures have led me to view the military with more nuance than this crowd did. As I sat quietly among the delirious cheering, I felt ever more marked as a Yankee outsider.
After another song, Randy got a secret smile on his face and shouted, “How many y’all own a pickup truck?”
Whooping and hollering.
“A Ford pickup!”
“A Chevy pickup!” and so on through the catalogue of pickup trucks, ending with the granddaddy of them all, “A Dodge Ram?”
Since the people around me were shouting out suggestions to Randy, I considered joining them and shouting, “How about a BMW four-door!” and fist bumping with my husband, but decided against it.
I don’t remember ever going to a concert, especially one where the crowd was so orgasmically devoted to the performers, where they played only one encore. With 42 (or 43 or 48) hit records in their past, they could have hauled out another one. I found that parsimonious, even insulting, but this crowd was okay with it.
After the concert, our little Yankee group exchanged knowing looks. In the midst of such ecstasy, we didn’t want to discuss our reactions where they could be overheard. Out in the street our friend’s wife giggled and told me in my ear, “These are not my people.”
I whispered back, “I felt like a visitor from an alien planet.”
The concert unsettled me. I didn’t sleep well that night. It was right after the Republican debate, and I realized how political the evening had been, though not a partisan word had been spoken. This crowd, like the Republicans in the debate, was certain about everything. Unlike the Beatles and the Eagles, with whom I compared the band’s close harmonies, there was no nuance of humility, reflection, or irony. There was no Beatles “Eleanor Rigby,” who was perhaps loved once, but was buried alone. No Eagles “Take Me To The Limit,” challenging me to live beyond my present boundaries. Life was unequivocally, unapologetically, unironically, as one song put it, “better with a Southern drawl.” What an odd statement to make in the middle of New York city! Randy allowed as how the band had thought it would be “intimidating” to sing it in New York, but did not allow as how it might be a little insulting, or perhaps funny, to some of the people in the audience. There was no self-deprecation (the balm of the Yankee soul), and no doubt at all.
The four of us were inarticulate as we tried to describe our malaise. We understood the concert’s challenge, though wreathed in smiles like a Southern Belle, to our views of country, family, and religion.
It was indeed like visiting a foreign land, and I am glad I took the trip, though it felt so good to get back home.