On This Day: Alabama Records First No. 1 Hit “Tennessee River” in 1980

by Jim Casey

Alabama began its unprecedented streak of 21 consecutive No. 1 singles by recording “Tennessee River” on April 16, 1980. Alabama owned the charts in the 1980s, and it all started with “Tennessee River.”

On April 11, 1980, RCA Records took a chance by signing the foursome of Randy Owen, Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry, and Mark Herndon. Known as Wildcountry at the time, almost every major label had turned them down because vocal groups that played their own instruments were considered more suited to rock or pop. Rebranded as Alabama, the foursome took country music by storm.

Now, Alabama is widely regarded as the greatest band in country music history.

Alabama Surges

Alabama recorded its first single for RCA, “Tennessee River,” on April 16, 1980. Penned by frontman Randy Owen, the fiddle-heavy tune tackled the topic of settling down with a family “on the Tennessee River” after a bout of wanderlust. Of course, Randy, Jeff, and Teddy were from Fort Payne, Alabama. The city’s proximity to the Tennessee River helped give the song an authentic, natural flow.

Released on May 16, 1980, “Tennessee River” surged up the charts. On August 16, the single reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The song began Alabama’s streak of 21 consecutive No. 1 singles on the chart, which capped with “You’ve Got the Touch” in 1987.

In addition, the band scored another dozen chart-toppers. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Alabama in 2005.

Country Rocks

Unlike previous vocal groups such as the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Brothers, Alabama was considered a new breed of band in the 1980s.

Randy, Jeff, Teddy, and Mark played their own instruments. They blended country and rock in a way no other group had. In fact, “Tennessee River” is the reason why Jeff Cook began playing fiddle in the first place.

As Randy told Country Weekly magazine in 1996, Alabama livened up “Tennessee River” by adding the fiddle arrangement after a young girl complained she didn’t like the song because she couldn’t dance to it.

“That just broke my heart,” said Randy. “That song is the reason why Jeff Cook plays the fiddle today.”