“High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama” Is A Tribute Done Right
I’ll be honest with you, I wanted to hate this album, and for many reasons. It begins with a general dislike of tribute, compilation, and cover albums altogether. We live in such a crowded music world, do we really need to hear a song that was perfectly fine the first time done some other way, or virtually the same way from a different artist? Sure it’s cool when they sneak one in on you in the context of an original album, but 14 reconstituted tracks stacked together can get unbearable.
And this particular album seemed like such a ploy. Alabama doesn’t really hold any sway on the heart of your average independent roots artist or their listeners—generally speaking of course—so it seemed like the idea of taking Americana names like Jason Isbell and Jessica Lea Mayfield, and mixing them with Texas/Red Dirt country artists like the Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Boland was just a way to trick people into paying attention to Alabama who otherwise wouldn’t.
And yeah, I’ll say it: Though I’ve always found a good handful of Alabama songs entertaining enough, and maybe some of their album cuts hold a little more substance than they tend to get credit for, they were sort of a mild band when looking at them in the big country music picture.
Alabama was quick to call on stereotypical references to the South and Alabama and evoke artifacts of Southern living in their songs, certainly laying at least some of the groundwork leading up to the parade of laundry list songs country music is plagued with today. That’s not to discount their entire catalog in any way or to imply their songs weren’t enjoyable, but Alabama “was what they were” so to speak—an accessible, sort of one-trick, songs-about-the-South pony that probably doesn’t deserve two tribute albums coming out for them in a month span.
And that’s the other thing. While Americana/Red Dirt fans were pouring over the lineup for High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama, salivating at names such as JD McPherson, Bob Schneider, John Paul White (The Civil Wars), and Shonna Tucker (Drive By Truckers), on the other side of the music world amidst the multiple wallet chains and Auto-tuned voices of mainstream land, they were looking at a completely other tribute album called Alabama & Friends that includes names like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line. This 1 – 2 punch seemed to be part of a plan to create a widespread Alabama resurgence across the entire music panorama, tricking us into losing perspective on Alabama’s overall stature in the country music pantheon.
And wouldn’t it be so typical of one sect of fans to rally behind their particular Alabama tribute, and poo poo the other. Isn’t there enough new, original music out there right now that is more worthy of our time and ears instead of engaging in some culture war over ho hum, rehashed music?
But believe it or not, I like this album. I like it a lot. And its appeal goes beyond the sexy names of contributors, which is how they get you in the door. High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama offers a great mixture from how the respective artists approach each song. Your country artists, like the Turnpike Troubadours with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle In The Band),” and Jason Boland with “Mountain Music,” play it pretty close to the original, not trying to get too cute.
Then you have more progressive artists like Jessica Lea Mayfield going in a completely different direction with her rendition of “I’m In A Hurry (And I Don’t Know Why)”—wholesale changing the feel and theme of the original composition without touching a word, making a fun song into a haunting indictment of modern life. Then you have an artist like JD McPherson truly putting his own throwback, 50’s-vibe on a song with “Why Lady Why.” As the clichÃ© for cover songs go, he “made it his own.”
High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama gets right what so many cover and tribute albums get wrong, including its 2013 counterpart Alabama & Friends. A good tribute album doesn’t just pay tribute to the band or artist. It should be a 50/50 proposition, with the contributing artists also benefiting from the name recognition the tributee affords. You can tell the contributors had any and all latitude they desired to take these songs wherever they wanted, or to leave them pretty much the same if they so chose. And most importantly, when you’re listening to this album, you being to think, “Damn, Alabama did have some pretty good songs, didn’t they?” That’s how you know when a tribute album was a successful endeavor, when it has the power to change a mind, or remind you of something you had forgotten, or introduce something to a generation who has no sentimental tie to it.
A fun exercise with this album is to simply turn it on before looking at the track list and trying to determine which artist the song is being done by simply from the style and the singer’s voice. It is sort of an aptitude test to check your level of independent country and roots knowledge. There’s a few moments on the album that lost me, like T Hardy Morris extending the guitar solo at the end of “High Cotton” so long seemed a little self-indulgent, but even this will be cherished by the right ear. The Bind Boys of Alabama finishing off the album with “Christmas in Dixie” works even in the swelter of mid September because of the inspired performance they turn in.
Cover and tribute albums will always be held at a disadvantage because of their lack of original content, but I would put High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama near the top of some of the stronger tribute efforts to grace the ears of the country music world.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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strait country 81
September 17, 2013 @ 10:04 am
I’m kinda 50/50 with alabama though old flame and juxebox in my mind are great.
September 17, 2013 @ 10:26 am
I saw The Turnpike Troubadours last month and they played the song that’s on this tribute. It was amazing. Found a video from that night.
Links to the Troubadours facebook page where they posted the video.
September 17, 2013 @ 10:35 am
Great version of “Old Flame”
September 17, 2013 @ 11:06 am
Amanda Shires is just amazing on this. Between her fiddle and her unique vocal style she really captures the heartbreak in this song.
In a snow bank in Illinois
September 17, 2013 @ 11:37 am
All I can say is thank God 18 Wheeler is not on it.
September 17, 2013 @ 1:38 pm
Look again ;). Good cover of a campy but sweet song.
In a snow bank in Illinois
September 18, 2013 @ 6:06 am
ugh…forgot that song was actually titled Roll On.
September 17, 2013 @ 12:13 pm
This is really a great group of artists. It’s about time there was a collaboration with some of the best red dirt and americana artists. All it’s missing is Jayke Orvis, Sturgill Simpson, Austin Lucas, Hayes Carll, and Leroy Virgil.
I guess I’m just gonna have to buy the 1 track from Jamey Johnson on the other tribute album and add it to this playlist 🙂
September 17, 2013 @ 12:14 pm
Another band that would have done a great job on this would be Blackberry Smoke..too bad they missed the boat on that.
September 17, 2013 @ 12:19 pm
ketch can fiddle but he can’t sing.
September 17, 2013 @ 12:27 pm
funny what time does. back in the early and mid 80s when I first got into country music and cowpunk Alabama was to me and other fans like me what taylor swift is to people on this site. now im a taylor swift fan and todays equivalent of cowpunk are recording a tribute to Alabama.
September 17, 2013 @ 4:41 pm
You lost me at cowpunk and “I’m a Taylor Swift fan”… By my math aren’t you just a little old to be a Taylor Swift fan? Big dub stepper are ya?
September 17, 2013 @ 5:24 pm
I wont miss you
Bigfoot is Real (but I have my doubts about you)
September 17, 2013 @ 12:52 pm
That promo picture still reminds me what a crap load Alabama was. Sure they may have written some decent lyrics but they always found a way to ruin their own songs and contribute to the demise of the very music this site is looking to save. I just can’t forget let alone forgive. Perhaps we can be thankful someone found the kindness to rescue the songs from those dork holes but it ain’t gonna be me.
September 17, 2013 @ 1:24 pm
“Sure they may have written some decent lyrics but they always found a way to ruin their own songs.
I agree, and that is what is so cool about this tribute and the way these songs are done, because it makes you realize there was something there when it came to Alabama’s music. The problem is, they were such a product of their time, everything had this cheeseball film on it that kept most active listeners at arm’s length. Even if you don’t like the music, it is hard to say this tribute didn’t do its job. At least, that’s my opinion. I couldn’t blame anyone for not getting into simply because Alabama’s name is on it.
September 17, 2013 @ 10:09 pm
Trigger, I see your point about the country and southern “stereotypes” in some of Alabama’s songs, but the references were a coherent part of the theme of their songs, unlike today’s “country” songs that start with a laundry list and try to slap a tune or a beat on top of it.
I think many of their songs relate to rural Americans all over the country, even though Randy Owen and his bandmates sang about what they were familiar with, which was the Southeast. I am not a Southerner and I have never been to Alabama – I ilve on a mountain in a rural area of California and yet I feel that “Mountain Music” speaks to me and that I’ve lived a few bits and pieces of the lyrics of the song. “Born Country” was authentically about Randy’s upbringing and even when they veered towards pop influences having a hundred years of down-home in their blood made for country music that was 10 times better than most of the crap released to country radio today.
September 17, 2013 @ 10:32 pm
I’m not comparing Alabama’s songs to the laundry list songs of today as much as saying they were potentially a precursor. Modern country has done a superlative job scraping off the surface of what made country music great in the past, but disregarding the foundation. That is in no way is Alabama’s fault.
And I agree that even though many of their songs are set in a place, you change the proper names and you can relate them to wherever you’re from. I still think they were a somewhat commercially-oriented band, but what I thought was cool about this tribute album is I thought it did a great job revealing the underlying substance to their music. This album changed my opinion about Alabama. I still wouldn’t describe myself as a huge fan, but I do take them more seriously now. In other words, don’t take my initial thoughts on the band as my final ones. I was setting the table to try and explain the transformation of opinion this album made me go through, if that makes sense.
September 18, 2013 @ 7:25 pm
I listened to a lot of Alabama growing up and I’ll admit that I even loved their campy and corny songs. Even today, when I know better, I still enjoy some of them.
It’s very appropriate to call them a precursor, in fact I used to call some of their music “disco country” because of the annoying synthesized bass that not only has no connection to the lyrics, but is a poor bass-line on top of that.
The tribute album – I liked some cuts, and not others. I was surprised how good some of those “disco” songs sounded once stripped of their ridiculous production. Makes me wonder if Shonna Tucker could make a version of “9 to 5” that doesn’t suck.
Broke, Thin, and Dirty
September 17, 2013 @ 12:53 pm
I’m not very impressed with this album. Alabama was know for the energy in their songs and these covers are slow and depressing. Good idea though.
September 17, 2013 @ 1:26 pm
I think that was the point of this album was to take the energy and showmanship away and leave simply the compositions to reveal the artistry behind their music. There’s plenty of energy on the other Alabama tribute, “Alabama & Friends,” and that is the point of that one. Certainly is some slow, depressing takes of songs on this album though.
September 17, 2013 @ 2:15 pm
I think that you’re understating Alabama’s impact a tad with your opening appraisal. The most commercially successful country band of all time is not just a “mild” part of the big picture. Say what you will about them in terms of creativity, but their influence stretches much farther, for better or worse. I remember watching the ACMs a few years ago and Brad Paisley was performing his tribute song “Old Alabama.” Alabama got onstage during the song just in time for their bridge and received a standing ovation. Forgive me, but regardless of your opinion of the artists in attendance, I don’t think that a group which amounted to nothing more than a “mild” part of country music history would receive that warm a welcome. Or two tribute albums in the same month.
Speaking of which, I’m far interested in a review of “Alabama & Friends.” You mentioned it and judging by the comment you’re ready to spit venom.
September 17, 2013 @ 2:22 pm
Oh, and I forgot to mention: I’m not sure if you play many or any video games, but “Grand Theft Auto V” (which was released today) has a Rebel radio station in game, which has played Johnny Paycheck, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson so far during my few minutes of free time that I had to check it out. Quite a pleasant surprise and it really made my day.
(This is off topic, I know, but I don’t really know when it would be ON topic so I assume that here is as good a place as any to mention it).
September 17, 2013 @ 3:52 pm
Saying Alabama is the most commercially successful band in country music is terribly misleading. When compared with all the ACTS of country music, where does this put them? Country music doesn’t have bands, and so this puts Alabama at a distinct advantage. It’s like Ford saying they sell twice as many trucks as Chevy. Technically they do, but this is only because Chevy splits their brand between GMC. I may have undersold Alabama, but let’s not oversell them either.
September 17, 2013 @ 10:39 pm
Based on this list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_music_artists
Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, Linda Rondstadt, Elvis, and the Eagles are the only country-countryish bands that outsold Alabama.
Garth Brooks and Reba are the only artists on that list that are viewed primarily as country artists.
September 17, 2013 @ 5:22 pm
I wont miss you
September 17, 2013 @ 5:23 pm
September 17, 2013 @ 6:35 pm
I liked all the names on the project, but it didn’t jump out at me why it was being in tribute to Alabama. I’ve lived in a few college towns, and it always seemed to be the frat boys doing karaoke to Alabama everywhere. With that line-up I imagine it’s good, and nothing against Alabama. I’ll have to check it out.
September 17, 2013 @ 8:41 pm
I for one have always loved Alabama and liked a ton of their songs. To me they wrote a lot of songs that truly spoke about the every day working man and their lives growing up. If you ever saw their behind the music, these guys grew up dirt poor, picking cotton in the fields. Their lyrics were truly about their lives growing up. They didn’t have songs that told me how country they were, they just spoke about their lives without trying to ram it down my throat.
September 17, 2013 @ 8:59 pm
I streamed this album the other day, prepared to be jaded by yet another bad tribute album, but liked all but one track of it, and thoroughly enjoyed several, with Brandy and Wade’s take on “Love In the First Degree” being my absolute favorite.
September 18, 2013 @ 10:26 am
Wonder how Isbell feels that his current and ex-wife are both on the album in addition to himself.
September 18, 2013 @ 7:03 pm
The path to Americana success is through Jason Isbell’s stomach.
September 18, 2013 @ 3:02 pm
Listened to “I’m in a Hurry(And Don’t Know Why”, which was one of my favorite songs when I was sixteen and driving the back roads in my old stomping grounds. I became extremely depressed and had to quit listening to that. There weren’t any redeeming qualities to that cover, IMO. Some of the other covers were pretty good, but that one was horrible.
September 18, 2013 @ 3:31 pm
I think that’s typical when it’s the music of your formative years and you associate the music with certain memories. I was a big KISS fan from about ages 10-15 and I felt much the same way that you do when I listened to their tribute album a few years back.
But I don’t feel that way when I listen to tribute albums for folks like Bob Wills and Merle Haggard even when the remake is significantly different from the original, probably because those songs were largely released before I was born and I didn’t hear much of them until adulthood.
All this is just a guess, I don’t claim to know anything about psychology.
September 18, 2013 @ 4:23 pm
I really like it. And I’m from the camp of no more tribute or cover albums!!
I wonder if Jamey Johnson is like “What? There’s another tribute album?! I’m stuck on the album with Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean?!”
I like the head to head versions. I haven’t heard the ‘othe’r tribute album yet, but I can’t imagine how Rascal Flatts version of ‘Old Flame’ will stack up to Jason Isbell and John Paul White’s excellent rendition (my favorite out of the gates). Same goes with FGL vs. Jessica Lea Mayfield versions ‘I’m In Hurry.”
September 18, 2013 @ 5:18 pm
Once again, Ray Benson proves he’s a vocal god. Lest we ever forget…
September 23, 2013 @ 10:11 am
Good stuff. I grew up with a lot of these tunes as a kid in the ’80s/early ’90s, so it’s kind of cool to hear them stripped of their somewhat dated production, getting at the actual substance of the songs. The new versions of “Roll On (18 Wheeler),” “If You Want to Play in Texas…,” “Mountain Music” and “Dixieland Delight” are still pretty fun; while others like “I’m in a Hurry…” and “High Cotton” turn perfectly serviceable country-pop into something more brooding and wistful (I especially like how the former manages to evoke the daily grind).