Music

'Song of The South': The Story Behind Alabama's Smash Hit

Screen grab from YouTube

Few tunes capture the overall sound of the iconic country music group Alabama like "Song of the South," a No. 1 hit in 1988.

The country song (and accompanying music video) captures the plight of the poor American farmer from the destitute days of the Great Depression, following a family that eventually sells the farm to the county and moves to the city.

From the flawless harmonies to a picking banjo and lyrics about picking cotton (the band's Randy Owen often talks about their days of picking cotton when they were younger), "Song of the South" is a true Southern classic. What's not to love about the lyrics, "Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth"?

Interestingly enough, Alabama was the fourth noteworthy act to record the song. Bobby Bare, an artist known for recording cuts by "Song of the South" writer Bob McDill, recorded it first for his 1980 album Drunk & Crazy. A year later, "Act Naturally" songwriter Johnny Russell reached No. 57 on the country charts--Its highest placement before becoming one of Alabama's all-time greatest hits. The third and final pre-Alabama version teams Tom T. Hall with Earl Scruggs and appears on the 1982 album Storyteller and The Banjo Man.

Notice that the three versions that predate Alabama's include an extra verse about a farming family's struggles that ends with "Mama she was old at 35."

In a 2008 feature by CMT, McDill said he didn't mind Alabama skipping a verse because "I was very pliable" and he assumed the omitted verse was "too brutal" for an Alabama hit.

Six years after Hall and Scruggs' version stalled at No. 72,  Alabama chose to release "Song of the South" as the lead single to their monstrously successful 12th studio album Southern Star.

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The music video was equally impactful, featuring classic footage of Dust Bowl farmers and out of work Southerners juxtaposed with the few wealthy who could still manage to smile during the nation's toughest economic times. It even adds a few words from FDR's famous "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" speech to amplify references to the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal programs.

Ultimately, it's a country music tune honoring the resilience of the American spirit without sugar-coating the difficult truth so many Americans faced while building the country we love today.

This story originally ran in 2018 and was written by Jeremy Burchard. It was edited in July 2020 by Bobby Moore to include information on earlier recordings of the song.

"Song of the South" Lyrics

Song, Song of the South
Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth
Gone, gone with the wind
There ain't no body looking back again

Cotton on roadside, cotton on the ditch
We all picked the cotton but we never got rich
Daddy was a veteran, a Southern Democrat
They oughta get rich man to vote like that

Singing: Song song of the South
Sweet potato pie, and I shut my mouth
Gone gone with the wind
There ain't no body looking back again

Well somebody told us Wall Street fell
But we were so poor that we couldn't tell
The cotton was short, and the weeds was tall
But Mr. Roosevelt's a' gonna save us all

Well momma got sick, and daddy got down
The county got the farm, and we moved to town
Poppa got a job with the TVA
We bought a washing machine, and then a Chevrolet

Singing: Song song of the South
Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth
Gone, gone with the wind
There ain't nobody looking back again

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'Song of The South': The Story Behind Alabama's Smash Hit