Alabama frontman Randy Owen surprised his hometown of Fort Payne, AL, in February when he announced the return of the group’s June Jam after a 26-year hiatus. From 1982 to 1997, the festival coincided with Nashville’s Fan Fair, leveraging the timing to bring country music’s biggest acts 160 miles southeast to the mountain town of 15,000 people. Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson and Charley Pride were just a few artists that otherwise might not have performed in the rural community. Now, Owen and his bandmate and cousin Teddy Gentry are ready to pass on their legacy.
A primary reason Alabama wanted to revive the long-dormant festival “was because it generates income for the foundation they use to give grants to all kinds of charities,” manager Tony Conway tells Country Insider. “They wanted to generate more income. When they retire, they want June Jam to live on.”
Gentry says Alabama’s career has made him and Owen very fortunate. “Because we are so fortunate, we are able to give back to all of those in our community who have been less fortunate,” he adds. “That’s what we’ve always tried to do. Being a good neighbor is what it’s all about to me.”
Fort Payne, the Dekalb County seat, is situated in the Appalachian Mountain foothills of northeast Alabama, not far from the Georgia and Tennessee state lines. Fort Payne is off the beaten path, an hour from small airports in Huntsville, AL, or Chattanooga, TN. Tourism is the economic engine for the area. For those visiting from the Gulf Coast, it’s the spot farthest south offering fall-foliage views. For Midwesterners, it’s the nearest place to enjoy early summer weather.
But getting there is no accident — and the popularity of the band, named the 1980s Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music, plays a large role in why people make the effort.
“It was a small town that not a lot of people knew about,” Mayor Brian Baine, a lifelong resident, says. “After Alabama hit the map, it was like everywhere you looked, they were talking about Fort Payne. We had a country music group from here in Fort Payne.”
June Jam was retired in 1997, and Alabama had their “Farewell Tour” in 2004. But “Fan Appreciation Days” — an annual gathering that included a golf tournament and smaller performance — continued throughout. Every annual gathering has benefitted the June Jam Foundation, which has raised more than $15 million for charities. As the health of group guitarist Jeff Cook declined before his death in November 2022, the three cousins agreed they wanted to preserve the group’s legacy by passing the foundation’s mission to their hometown.
“They stopped doing June Jam because they were so exhausted,” Conway says. “They were doing 120 shows a year. They were never home. They missed a lot of birthdays and anniversaries. They were burnt out. It’s a lot of work to do June Jam. It’s a lot to get all of those artists to perform for free. But now that we’re doing 30-35 shows a year, they have the time they wanted to put into it. They want to keep it going for the foundation and for Fort Payne.”
It’s always been about charity for Alabama. Owen began Country Cares for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with an impassioned speech at Country Radio Seminar in 1989. Since then, artists and radio stations have teamed to raise more than $900 million for St. Jude. In 2019, the CMA Foundation marked the 30th anniversary of Owen’s speech by presenting the singer with its Humanitarian Award.
When their home state was devastated by a tornado that killed 253 people in April 2011, the group came out of retirement to lend a hand. Their first performance since 2004 came at “Bama Rising,” an all-star benefit the band organized that raised more than $2 million.
“They had no intention of getting back together,” Conway says. But after the event’s success, “they said, ‘This was so much fun. Let’s see if anyone still wants to come out and see us.’”
They’ll use their music and their connections to help again. On June 3, June Jam welcomes Jake Owen, The Oak Ridge Boys, Jamey Johnson, The Frontmen, Exile, Mark Wills, Neal McCoy, Dailey & Vincent, Chapel Hart, The Isaacs, The Malpass Brothers, Home Free, and Worth the Wait to the Dekalb County VFW Fairgrounds in Fort Payne. Former SiriusXM The Highway host Storme Warren will emcee. The space is already reserved for a 2024 event, and the band will eventually hand the reins over to the city to preserve for future generations.
“Our local community has a lot of need for charity,” Gentry says. “If we can contribute to those who are less fortunate, it’s always a good thing. I also have some great grandbabies that will be coming who have never been to an Alabama concert.”
At its peak, June Jam attracted more than 60,000 fans from across the country. Organizers have capped this year’s attendance at 10,000, but nearly three decades after the event was last staged, it still lures first-time visitors. Dekalb County Tourism President John Dersham says every area hotel and Airbnb sold out for the weekend before the lineup announcement. That usually only happens in August for “The World’s Longest Yard Sale.” Fort Payne is near the southern end of that route, which begins in Addison, MI.
Baine estimates out-of-towners have purchased 80% of June Jam tickets. Residents may make other plans to avoid the crowds, but they’re grateful for the spotlight and economic boost that comes with the event.
“It’s a welcome sight,” Baine says. “It brings new people to your city and gives people that haven’t been here in 26 years — or may have never been here — an opportunity to see it. Once they come into town, they’re filling up our hotels, they’re visiting our gas stations, they’re visiting our restaurants. It’s definitely a positive when you have a crowd in town.” — Blake Ells