It’s a bit ironic that it’s a band from Alabama that most famously explained the importance of the fiddle to music from Texas, but few if anyone will complain how they did it. 40 years ago today (November 3rd, 1983), Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, Jeff Cook (RIP), and Mark Herndon stepped into the Cook Sound Studio in Fort Payne, Alabama, and recorded “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band).” It would go on to become one of Alabama’s top songs, and one of the most legendary and widely-recognized songs in country music history.
This is top praise for a song that wasn’t even supposed to be a featured single. When Alabama released their 1984 album Roll On, they didn’t have the song pegged as one of the album’s best. The third single from the album was called “I’m Not That Way Anymore,” and that’s what everyone thought would be the next hit. They even recorded a video for “I’m Not That Way” at Fort Payne High School near the studio.
Meanwhile when “I’m Not That Way Anymore” was sent to radio stations, it had “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas” stamped on the B-side. That’s what all the DJs started playing, and listeners loved what they heard. Soon, requests started pouring in like crazy. Next thing you knew Alabama had their next #1 song, and their 14th in a row in a string of 21 of them. Few people could name all or most of Alabama’s #1’s during that era. But everyone knows “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas.”
One of the things that makes the song the quintessential Alabama track is how it utilized the multi-instrumental capabilities of founding member Jeff Cook. Cook was the band’s lead guitar player, and a damn fine one at the that. When Alabama started out they kept it pretty traditional country, but as time went on they began to define the rock side of country with the attack Jeff Cook brought to the guitar position.
To perform “If You’re Gonna Play In Texas” though, you needed a hot fiddle player too. Lucky for Alabama, Jeff Cook fit the bill as well, and this is what allowed the band to select the song for their catalog. Cook started the song on guitar, and finished with the fiddle and bow. Jeff Cook could also play mandolin, banjo, keys, bass, and just about anything else. He passed away in November of 2022.
“If You’re Gonna Play In Texas” was written by Murry Kellum who is known for performing “Long Tall Texan.” Kellum co-wrote the song with Dan Mitchell. The song isn’t a name-dropper per se, but it does mention the iconic fiddle songs “Faded Love” by Bob Wills, Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man,” and the classic “Cotton Eye Joe.” The full version also starts with a piano intro that incorporates “The Eyes of Texas” in it.
When the band released the album Alabama Live in 1988, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas” was one of the featured tracks, and gave the song renewed life. Today, it’s very common to hear contemporary bands covering the song, especially when touring through the Lone Star State, and if they have a fiddle in the band.
Alabama will always be country’s favorite boys from The Yellowhammer State. But folks down in Texas and fans of the fiddle owe a debt of gratitude to those Alabama boys for so beautifully explaining the importance of the fiddle in song.