Alabama are one of the few country bands I sort of knew when I was young. For some reason, my father had a few of their records (not this one as far as I know) and my dad would play them sometimes, so I was exposed to Alabama’s sound before CMT existed (or we got it) and before I really knew that there was this whole thing called country separate from pop/rock. And he bought Dancin’ on the Boulevard in my teens, even though I’m pretty sure Alabama didn’t get played on CMT at the time. I bring this up because I’m not sure I could have told you what Alabama was, or why it was supposedly different from the other music my parents listened to. That might be a good thing, in some cases…
When I first encountered neo-traditionalism (specifically, ’80s Steve Earle) I wondered, “what about this is traditional?” To me, it sounded very contemporary and fully aware of the trends in pop rock. At the time, I figured whatever Earle and his contemporaries were reacting against must be pretty slick indeed. Little did I know that one of the things they were reacting against was the one mainstream country band I was actually somewhat familiar with, Alabama.
There are tracks on this album that are identifiable as country music. Sometimes the country accent is thicker than on other tracks, for example. (Cook’s one lead vocal sounds more “country” to me than Owen often does, for example.) Other times they play guitar like they are playing country music. The songs might even all pass as country if they were performed by a different band. I mean, there’s an alternate reality in which this band has fiddles and pedal steel guitars and at least pretends it’s a country band. (There is a fiddle on “Ride the Train” and maybe another song but there is no credit for it, which is weird. I worried it was a keyboard but it sounds too much like an actual fiddle.)
But, most of the time, this is a pop rock band (the emphasis being on the “pop”) playing middle of the road contemporary pop rock that is “country” because of their voices and because there isn’t any distorted guitar on the record. I have no idea what their previous records sounded like, as I’m pretty sure the records my dad owns (owned?) were all later than this. But numerous pop rock bands were playing this degree of country in the early ’70s, only they weren’t marketing themselves to the audience (or perhaps weren’t able to). Is this music more country than the Eagles’ early albums? Is it more country than the Flying Burrito Brothers? (The answer to the latter question is “No.”) There’s borderline disco on this record, for fucks sake (“Fantasy”).
I am not opposed to musical fusion – I love musical fusion. However, fusing a genre with lame mainstream pop music is not what I like about fusion. It’s something else.
I don’t like discussions of artistic purity. They are mostly stupid and ways of gatekeepers trying to keep upstarts out of their clubs. But the idea that this is “country” music is kind of laughable. This is pop rock dressed up in country clothes in order to sell a massive amount of records. Yes, there are a couple actual country tracks, but they are few and far between. I didn’t realize that the “arena country” that I detest was actually invented a decade (or more) earlier. Now I know. (I should have already known, but I was a kid when I first listened to this band.)