By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Ten years after embarking on a lengthy "Farewell Tour," country music band Alabama was back on the road on Friday to mark 40 years in the business.
While the 2003 tour packed arenas across the United States, the crossover southern rock and country band will play in smaller venues this time, as well as taking to the seas for the first time on a four-day Caribbean cruise.
"I just thought it would be a shame if we didn't make some kind of an effort to celebrate the 40th year of starting at The Bowery, and what we do best is sing," singer Randy Owen told Reuters.
"It's a historical thing as far as our band goes. All of us are still together, still alive. We are so blessed to still be able to get on that stage and play. We're gonna have fun," Owen, 63, said.
The group, consisting of cousins Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry, got their first major gig in the South Carolina town of Myrtle Beach in 1973 as the house band at a small club called The Bowery.
Loyal fans were packing that club by summer's end, having no idea this bar band would go on to sell 73 million albums in the 1980s and 1990s and have more than 40 No. 1 singles, including "Love in the First Degree," "Dixieland Delight," and "Feels So Right."
After a free show for some 200 fans at The Bowery on Thursday night, the 16-city "Back to The Bowery" tour officially kicks off on Friday at the Alabama Theatre - named after the band - also in Myrtle Beach.
The band is also joining the latest trend of short themed-cruises that feature musicians, dancers, Broadway stars and other celebrities who sail with fans for several days of concerts, lessons and autograph signings.
The Alabama & Friends Festival at Sea leaves from Miami in October for the Bahamas on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl ship.
While tour tickets are selling well, Owen said they had no idea if they would be playing to five people or a sold-out house when the tour was announced several weeks ago.
"We just didn't know how the economy would affect people buying tickets. We didn't decide to do the tour for the money," he said.
While the band has played concerts such as a benefit for tornado victims in Alabama in 2011, this is the first official tour since 2003. The group is bringing along three to four musicians to round out their sound.
Owen said the band members are looking forward to seeing their fans again. "I think it's wonderful we still care about one another and we still care about the music. And actually we are still a pretty good band.
"It's just one of the lucky stories in country music. It's great to know that people haven't forgotten the music," he said.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Vicki Allen)