And now, all four share the love of writing and performing country music and will find themselves together on the stage at Talladega’s Ritz Theatre Friday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m
The line-up is impressive, there are long timers Teddy Gentry, Lenny LeBlanc and Billy Dean, and someone a little newer on the scene, Sam Hunt, who some may remember from his quarterback days at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The foursome has never performed together, and they all say that they’re looking forward to the get-together, the mix of music and voices and to telling some of the stories behind the songs you hear from them on the radio.
You can expect to hear your favorites, their hits that made it to the top of the charts and earned Grammy Awards and lots of other honors, but they also plan to treat their Talladega audience to some new material as well.
Gentry has been playing the guitar since he was four or five-years-old, learning to strum along to music at church.
Eventually, he and his cousins formed the legendary band Alabama and started performing professionally in 1973.
Speaking by telephone from a cattle farm in south Georgia-that’s another of Gentry’s interests-last weekend, Gentry said he and Leverton are old friends and he’s looking forward to the reunion.
Gentry wrote many of Alabama’s top hits, and said the process of writing music and lyrics works in different ways for him.
“Sometimes it starts with just a lick on the guitar, and that leads me to the music,” he said.
For him, it’s important that his audiences hear the story behind the song, and he’ll tell some during his visit to The Ritz.
With so many songs to his credit, asking about favorites is a little daunting, but Gentry answers the question with ease.
“I’d have to say ‘Home Again,’” he said. “And the song I wrote for my daughter’s second birthday, ‘You’ll Never Be One Again.’”
Then Gentry mentions the song “One More Shot,” saying it’s a way of giving thanks to the lord for letting him have one more day.
Gentry said he’s writing music monthly, and has enjoyed getting back together with his cousins to perform and raise money over the past year and a half for his home state’s tornado victims from the April 27, 2011 storm outbreak.
A native of Fort Payne, Gentry said raising money to help the tornado victims “back home” has been a fulfilling venture for the group, who has done about eight benefit shows for the effort.
“We actually got back together to do that,” he said.
When he’s not on the road performing or writing music, Gentry is all about operating his grandfather’s former cotton farm in Fort Payne, where he has developed a breed of cattle called “South Poles.”
LeBlanc has been devoted to his love of music since he was about 15.
“Since then, I’ve really not done anything else,” he said. “And fortunately, I’ve been able to make a living at it.”
He cites musicians such as James Taylor and John Mayer as being high on his list of favorites, and he’s also a big fan of the relatively new music sensation Adele.
On a personal level, LeBlanc said accepting Christianity has played a huge role in his career and all around life as well.
He became a Christian in 1981, and since then, LeBlanc said his life has been radically changed.
LeBlanc said he did not grow up in the church, and went on to experience professional success, but still felt empty inside.
“I felt shallow and empty inside, even selfish,” he said. “I cared about me and what I wanted. But I surrendered my heart to God and felt that I wanted to sing about how my life had changed.”
LeBlanc said Christian music hadn’t really reached a high level of popularity at that time, but he wanted to sing about his life change.
“There really wasn’t a genre of Christian music at the time, but it was important to me,” he said.
LeBlanc grew up in Daytona Beach and now lives in Muscle Shoals. Other than a six-month course in music theory, his journey through music has been self-driven, he said.
LeBlanc plays a variety of instruments, the acoustic and electric guitar, along with the piano.
“I just try and be a good steward of what God has given me,” he said. “And music is so amazing the way that it can touch people’s hearts.”
For Dean, music was a part of his life since growing up listening to his father’s band, “The Country Rocks.”
He grew up in Quincy, Fla., and his dad, also named Billy Dean, had a big influence on his musical pursuits.
Dean’s big break in the music world came through Ed McMahon’s Star Search program. He still remembers the song he chose to perform, “Tobacco Road.”
He made it through a couple of weeks of the show, got “bumped off” as he puts it, likely due to a sick spell when his voice wasn’t quite up to par.
But he still caught the attention of music professionals and kept on going.
Now, Dean is the holder of 11 Top Ten Billboard Country Singles and his successful music career spans more than 20 years.
He was named Top New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music and received the Song of the Year Award for “Somewhere in My Broken Heart.”
He’s also a Grammy winner for his work with Kenny Rogers for the recording of “Buy Me a Rose.”
Dean is getting ready now to prepare for his yearly Christmas special with Rogers.
He’s looking forward to the Christmas special with Rodgers, along with coming to Talladega with his three fellow musicians.
“I really like coming together like this where we can actually talk with the audience and perform as well,” he said.
Dean said he always believed he would find his way into a music career, and his parents believed in him, too.
In addition to playing the guitar, Dean plays piano and “a little fiddle.”
He laughs telling what he likes best about having the career he has.
“Not having to have a real job,” he said. “I guess I’ve always been kind of a gypsy spirit.”
When he’s writing music by himself, Dean said he usually comes up with a melody, some chords, and that leads him to the words. He describes himself as “an observer of life,” and said that characteristic leads him to much of his writing.
As far as a favorite song of his own, Dean quickly answers, “Somewhere in My Broken Heart.”
“I didn’t think it would do what it did, though,” he said.
The song was voted as “Song of the Year” by his peers in 1992.
Dean and his wife, Stephanie, live just outside of Nashville on a farm they’ve named Dean Acres Farm, and have ventured into the herb business, using Mrs. Dean’s family recipes for their herb mixtures.
Talking during a telephone interview Wednesday night, Dean was preparing to do a show in Branson, Mo., and had been visiting with fellow music great Mickey Gilley.
The Dean’s farm has become a venue for live music performances, and Dean said he plans to pursue that idea further.
Hunt didn’t get his start in music until his college years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
He was recruited by UAB and played quarterback, and ended up majoring in economics.
Hunt grew up in Cedartown, Ga., and said he was always a huge country music fan.
He got his first guitar after he graduated from high school, and as he learned to play, the music writing gradually came along with it, he said.
It was just last summer when Hunt’s song “Come on Over” was recorded by Kenny Chesney, giving him huge national attention as a songwriter.
Hunt said his background as a “jock” sort of made him feel like a “fish out of water,” but the 27-year-old is very happy to have the validation from Chesney choosing his song.
Hunt said he hopes to record his own CD this fall, but the negotiations are still in the works.
He said it never crossed his mind that he would end up in the music business, at least until he was in his late teens.
Hunt said he’s looking forward to the Talladega show.
“I grew up about 45 minutes away from Talladega,” he said. “ These are the people that I grew up and around.”
Tickets for the show are $23 and 7may be ordered by calling The Ritz at 256-315-0000 or by stopping by the office on Talladega’s downtown square or by visiting www.talladega.ritz.com.