Feature: Family Affair


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Alabama band member Teddy Gentry and daughter Sally talk about fame, family, songwriting and Lookout Mountain roots as Sally makes her debut as a professional lyricist.


For more than four decades, Lookout Mountain native Teddy Wayne Gentry has been bassist, singer and songwriter for the legendary band Alabama, the most awarded group in the history of country music.

But when I interview him, he is more the proud father of his first born, Sally Gentry Lutz – or “Sally G” as Nashville is coming to know her.

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For two hours, I observe an almost symbiotic dance of words, glances and laughs between father and daughter as they talk about songwriting, family, fame, cattle – and memories of the road that brought them to where they are today.

They are both a little antsy. There’s a big announcement coming, and I didn’t know it.

I knew Sally had written and released a demo called “Half of Who You Are,” a tribute to her father, and I was anxious to hear his reaction.

Sally fairly bounces with joy, long brunette locks framing an angelic face, as she sits next to her dad, beaming and hanging on his every word.

“Sally will be writing for our publishing company, Kid South Music,” Teddy says without fanfare. Sally is effervescent, her eyes glistening.

I offer congratulations and wait for the follow-up.

“Me, Randy and Jeff have had a publishing company since 1973,” Teddy continues. “Sally is going to be writing. We’ll be publishing her material for her.”
A simple announcement, but one that carries huge potential. Sally says she only learned of the decision a few days earlier. “Three different labels have wanted me,” she adds, barely able to contain her excitement.

Music publishing companies make deals with songwriters to protect and promote their songs.
“If someone wants to record a song,” Teddy explains, “we collect the license fee and make sure Sally gets her cut and writer’s royalties. Every writer has to have a publisher.”

Sally says the process involves cataloging the material and cutting a rough demo. Her current demo partner is Mark Narmore, a longtime friend who takes Sally’s lyrics and puts them to music.

“I send Mark everything I write,” Sally says. “He just puts it together and puts the melody to it. He doesn’t change any of my words.”
Singers on Sally’s demos include Scott Ward of Gadsden, Ala. (“Half of Who You Are” and “Come Back Before You’re Gone”), and Rachel Wammack of Muscle Shoals (“Washin’ Over Me”). Sally’s demos can be heard at reverbnation.com/sallygentry.

It is clear Teddy is not just Sally’s dad; he’s her hero. She spent three years penning 450 songs before she anxiously unveiled one to him.
“I just want to make Daddy proud,” she says. “My goal, honest to God, is just to make him proud.”

“Half of Who You Are” contains the refrain: “Half of who you are, hope I get there some day / I look up to you, like those stars ‘cross the Milky Way. / The times we weren’t together, oh the love spoke louder. / And all I’m shooting for, is to be half of who are you are.”
“I am told I am a lot like my daddy … down-to-earth,” says Sally, 36.

“I knew a long time ago I wanted to do something with music – just didn’t know what it was. I held back from telling Daddy until very recently, because I wanted to own it. When you are given a gift and that is your heart and soul, it’s like putting your newborn child out there for everybody to judge. It’s a piece of you that you are sharing with the world.

“And I wanted to make Daddy proud, by hearing him say, ‘She’s a good song writer.’ I look up to him more than anyone I know.”
Teddy assures her. “There’s no measuring,” he says. “I couldn’t love you any more. Baby, I’m proud of you. And being a momma and raising kids is the most difficult thing in the world.”

Sally’s home with her husband John Lutz and their five children is a stone’s throw away from Teddy’s place atop Lookout Mountain, on a country road where family privacy is guarded, and Teddy’s 140-acre cattle ranch, “Bent Tree Farms,” stretches to the horizon. On the ranch is Teddy’s childhood home place – that of his late, beloved Grandpaw Burt Eller.

It is here that Grandpaw Eller raised Teddy, on what was then a 60-acre cotton farm. “I come from a background of nothing,” Teddy relates. “When me and my grandpaw would go to the cotton gin in the fall, if we had the money to pay the bank off, we would stop at the Frosty Freeze and have hamburgers and coca colas – the only time of year I remember eating a hamburger. That was a big deal. We didn’t have TV. I bought books with my lunch money, and I’d come home and read and live in my fantasy world.”
I ask Teddy what his reaction was when he first heard “Half of Who You Are.”

“When I played the demo,” he says, then pauses, “I was very flattered to have her write something for me, about me. Very flattering, very emotional.”
Both Teddy and Sally refer to songwriting ability as “almost a curse” because it runs on the demands of emotion that can’t wait to be expressed. “I get a melody in my head, and I can’t get it off,” explains  Teddy. “I get in the shower first thing in the morning, and it’s playing in my head. Your antenna is always up – you’re always looking for the next line or hook.

“I’m totally consumed. Sometimes I drive the guys in the band crazy because I’m a perfectionist.”
Teddy is speaking of his two original Alabama band partners, Randy Owen and Jeff Cook. All three cousins have maintained homes on Lookout Mountain and their roots in the area’s heritage, despite the band’s spectacular rise to fame.

Sally nods. “What we mean by curse is you have to drop what you’re doing and get it out,” she says. “Literally, you can’t focus on anything until you do. I am blessed to have that gift, but you really have no control.”

Teddy says he will be working with Sally on song structuring to further her success. “There’s a big difference between a lyric and a three minute composite – to write a great song so that in three minutes everybody interprets that song in the same way you did,” he says. “Every line has to lead you into the next one, and if you lose your train of thought anywhere in that song, you have lost your audience.”

Teddy’s passion for songwriting is apparent, yet he says, “It’s no big deal.” He believes songs are personal and can’t be measured in the same way as success over a long, lifetime career. “The career Alabama is a big deal,” he says.

“Being a songwriter is something you do because you love it,” he continues. “Writing songs is emotion. It’s satisfying. It’s satisfying myself. It’s something I have to get out. And when I get it out, it’s better than sex.

“You’ve created something that is good and decent and said it in a cool way – and you’ve spent years and years and years learning how to do it. If you write something that changes somebody’s life, you’ve left something that will be around after you’re gone. A part of you.”

Teddy says even after Alabama retired and came off the road some four years until reuniting in 2011, he never stopped songwriting.
He wrote his first song around age 10 and called it “Two Roads.” “It was about life in general, from a young kid being raised in a Holiness church,” he recalls. “Probably my first influence on my musical life was gospel music.”

Teddy says of the thousands of songs he has written or co-written, he couldn’t name his favorite. “You don’t have a favorite,” he says. “They’re like kids. You have favorites for different occasions. “‘The Fans’ I like because it’s a thank-you for letting me do what I do – a very emotional song, writing it for those people. Two or three days of putting my being into every line.”

He also mentions “Never Be One,” the song he wrote to Sally on her second birthday. “You think it would not be a favorite?” he asks.
He adds “Give Me One More Shot.” “It was to the good Lord for giving me another day to wake up and do what I do.”

Teddy picks up the acoustic guitar at his feet and strums his latest song for Linda Gentry, his wife of 42 years. He sings, “I’d go back down every road we’ve been, just to do it all again.” The song is set to be included on Alabama’s newest album, to be released in May.

Teddy relates how “Never Be One” was recorded in a South Carolina studio, and he walked across the street to where his family was staying to ask a favor of Sally. “I asked her if she would go in the studio with me and say ‘Goodnight, Daddy’ at the end of the song.”

“He woke me up in my footie pajamas,” Sally laughs, “and I remember going with him to the studio and saying ‘Goodnight, Daddy.’ I was too young to ‘get it’ at the time. I always knew that was me on that song. I just didn’t know it was a big deal.”

“Everything I do is by emotion and feel,” Teddy adds, “and it just was the icing on the cake for her to say ‘Good Night Daddy.’ That was the ‘movie ending.’”

Teddy’s voice cracks as he explains the depth of his love for his two children, Sally and her little brother, Josh. “You gotta understand,” he begins, “you’ve been wanting a baby so bad, and it was five or six years before we got pregnant with Sally, and we were on pins and needles the whole time. I don’t think anybody was ever loved any more.”

Teddy holds his hands out, as if receiving a newborn into his arms. “They brought her out, and she was just beautiful and perfect in every way,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is just as close as I’ll ever come to seeing a miracle.’ That feeling has never left. She’s still my miracle.”

“We have always had a lot of love in our family. The downside to the success is the times you didn’t get to be there.”

Sally’s first demo echoes that sentiment: “The heart of you was here with me, don’t think I didn’t know. / I’d fall asleep most every night, with your songs on my radio. / Like a beacon in the darkness, your smile always shines through./ I hope I’ve made you proud of me; I hope you know I’m proud of you.”

Sally says her father not only taught her the basics of fishing and basketball, but how to understand fans and how to handle fame. “I’m a little girl, going out to eat with our family, and all these people would come up to us,” she recalls. “I turned to Daddy one day and said, ‘Do you not ever get tired? They always stop you!’ He said, ‘They are the ones who made us who we are.’ He accomplished his dream. Who am I to be selfish? I share my daddy with everybody.”

Fans of Alabama might see Teddy as a laid-back, quiet, unassuming, bass player who harmonizes. But don’t be fooled by his mild manner.

The man is intense: totally committed to his family, his songwriting, his programs to help children and his cattle business. Yet he doesn’t mix the four.
“I never brought my music home,” Teddy says. “When my son Josh was in first or second grade, he was asked what his dad did for a living, and he said I was a farmer. That made me so proud!”

Teddy admits he’s totally consumed by whatever he’s doing at the moment – and often works himself to exhaustion, focusing on nothing else. And though this is puzzling to some, Sally says she understands because she’s the same. “Daddy don’t sit still,” she says.

That dynamic, all-consuming work ethic – borne of his agricultural upbringing – is the vehicle that helped bring him fame and fortune. “My advice to my kids and my grandkids and now my great-grandkids is that you don’t live life without passion,” he says. “I mean, be passionate about something! And ever what it is, you don’t have to get my approval on it. If you love it, I will love it, and I will support you in it, because you love it. Dedicate yourself to something you love every day.”

Learn more about Teddy Gentry and the band Alabama at the Alabama Fan Club in Fort Payne, Ala.

Staying Busy

Alabama is touring again, but Teddy stays busy with an array of other activities as well, including:
RUNNING BENT TREE FARMS. On his ranch, Teddy raises a special breed of heat-tolerant cattle he developed called South Poll.

BOOK PUBLISHING. Teddy’s new book, “Before You Have a Cow,” co-written with Allen Williams, has just been published and is available for purchase at the Alabama Fan Club in Fort Payne.

OPEN MIC NIGHT. Teddy sponsors this regular event, where local kids can jam with musicians and songwriters and experience singing on stage with a live band for free at the Alabama Fan Club.

CHILDREN’S ADVOCACY CENTER FUNDRAISERS. Teddy raises money for the DeKalb County, Alabama, Children’s Advocacy Center through events such as his annual birthday bash (Jan. 22) at 3rd and Lindsley, a family supper club in Nashville, Tenn. Teddy’s songwriter and musician friends come by, and his Rockit City Band plays. He describes Rockit City Band as “songwriters and friends around Music Town (Nashville) who get together and have fun, play, just jam. Ninety percent of what we do is for charity work.”

HIS NORTHEAST ALABAMA COMMUNITY COLLEGE ANNUAL SPRING EVENT. Kids from area schools participate in this musical competition.