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November 30, 2021

‘I Hate Alabama’ song not just about Crimson Tide jealousy

As with any social media post, click through the headline before judging the story of “I Hate Alabama.”

Though encased in a chorus of anti-Bama fervor, Conner Smith’s single actually unfolds as a backhanded compliment to the ponderous phenomenon of Alabama football, especially during its ongoing Nick Saban dynasty.

At core, it’s a lost-love song, about an ex-girlfriend who decamped in Tuscaloosa: “Then you had to go and break my heart/in a beer-can-covered frat house yard.” When the singer dwells on pain, he sees crimson, literally and figuratively.

But it doesn’t help the hurt that “Ever since ’06/They get us every season.” Bama football has won 14 straight against Smith’s University of Tennessee Volunteers.

“I’ll say ‘Roll Tide’ all day long,” said Smith, 21-year-old star of the country ballad that’s burning up on TikTok and elsewhere, with clips added showing the Crimson Tide wiping out opponents.

Then came Texas A&M, and the 41-38 slugfest that clipped UA’s streak of 100 straight victories over unranked opponents.

Not to misunderstand, the Chattanooga-born and Nashville-raised singer-songwriter bleeds pure orange. But the University of Alabama has been very good to him, in somewhat ironic fashion.

“The timing of the Alabama loss (Saturday Oct. 9) was just really wild. It really put a rocket on the song,” Smith said. “It’s been cool to watch it have its little moment.”

Speaking by phone from his Nashville home Tuesday morning, Smith noted he was preparing for a Birmingham gig that night, where he’d play the single, of course, possibly followed by “Sweet Home Alabama.”

There’s a double meaning there, because not only is “Sweet Home Alabama” a song many UA fans claim as their anthem, but “I Hate Alabama” also references it as a focal point for angst: “And I love Lynyrd Skynyrd/But Lord I hate ‘Sweet Home’/‘Cause when I hear it, all I see/is a girl with houndstooth on.”

PAUL FINEBAUM’S TAKE

The song is catchy, said Paul Finebaum, longtime writer, commentator and broadcaster for ESPN’s SEC Network, but probably won’t be snagging any Grammys.

“It’s cute,” he said. “As someone who’s played around with some music in my life, I’m all for any song that gets noticed.”

Smith’s work has drawn a little heat on Finebaum’s call-in radio show, but mostly, Bama fans haven’t noticed, or cared, he said.

“Alabama fans don’t really care about anybody else anymore,” Finebaum said, laughing, which he said is a by-product of success. “A rival is somebody that you wake up every day hating. Alabama doesn’t concern itself with others.

“I think in many ways Alabama is judged against perfection, and everyone else is judged against Alabama.”

Aside from the breakup theme, “I Hate Alabama” is actually underlining the dominance of UA under Saban: 170 wins versus 24 losses, 19 bowl appearances with 14 victories, eight SEC West titles, seven SEC championships, and six national championships.

Hating is a sure sign of passion. Hatred’s opposite isn’t love, but apathy.

“I love when somebody comes up to me and says ‘I hate you.’ ‘Good,’” Finebaum said.

In the mid-’90s, Finebaum wrote a book titled “I Hate Alabama: 303 Reasons Why You Should Too,” following on the heels of a similar gag-filled book about Auburn. Those sold so well for Crane Hill Press he wound up completing 54 more, on Notre Dame, Clemson, and other college powerhouses.

“The jokes were terrible,” Finebaum said, following a template, with about 50 percent of the same quips showing up in every book. “Then I’d pick on 10 sportswriters and sportscasters in every market, so they’d come after me and write an article.”

Why 303?

“I have no earthly idea,” Finebaum said, laughing, noting the concept evolved 25 years ago. But clearly there’s a market for football-grounded hatred.

“I came to Alabama at the end of (Bear) Bryant,” in 1980, when he joined the Birmingham Post-Herald as a columnist and reporter. “Even when Bama had The Three Mikes, it didn’t matter. People still hated them.”

(“The three Mikes” refers to a ragged Crimson Tide era encompassing head coaches Mike DuBose, Mike Price — hired in 2002, but fired before coaching a single game — and Mike Shula, struggling to get the program back on track, hoping to return to Bear-style glory years. Dennis Franchione, in for just two seasons between Price and Shula, doesn’t track.)

Aside from the “Sweet Home Alabama” connection, Alabama and its fans groove to the Tide’s name in songs, no matter the framing or intent. Steely Dan’s 1976 “Deacon Blues” gets spun at Bryant-Denny Stadium for its refrain: “They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues.”

Finebaum spent years chasing co-songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, trying to get them on his show to discuss the song’s origins. Fagen has told variations, including that it was inspired by football player Deacon Jones, and somewhat like “I Hate Alabama,” was intended as part tribute, part smirk at UA’s ubiquity.

Only time will tell if “I Hate Alabama” will earn a place of honor over the Bryant-Denny PA, along with “Sweet Home Alabama,” Blondie’s “The Tide is High,” and the band Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight,” but who knows?

“It might create a whole cottage industry of hating Alabama songs,” Finebaum said.

TUSCALOOSA RESPONDS

Much as it did in 2017, when actress Sally Field was quoted making disparaging remarks about Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports prepared a friendly response to Smith, posting it on its Instagram account. It reads:

“Hi Conner! Team Visit Tuscaloosa here. Broken hearts suck but we’re so happy to see yours has found a new lovely Alabama beauty. The next time you’re around, let us know. We’d love to treat you to that next beer.

“We do understand a trip to T-town might be best outside of football season given the past (and b/c of our championship football team, of course). In this case, you might even experience a little less crimson and houndstooth vests. However, we can’t promise you won’t hear your beloved Sweet Home or ‘Roll Tide’ chants — that’s pretty much a given anytime around here.

“But, if you’ll give Tuscaloosa another chance you’ll learn that there’s so much our little community offers! Whether you’re a foodie, a history buff, outdoorsman, or a fan of music and art (hint, hint), we think it’s very possible to fall back in love with Tuscaloosa… and maybe even ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?!

“Just come as you are, even with that Braves hat on. We promise to always welcome you here. #callus #visitTCL #nextbeerisonus.”

Alabama plays Tennessee at 6 p.m. Oct. 23 at Bryant-Denny Stadium, for its Homecoming game.

NOT A ‘DISS’ SONG

Smith noted a number of journalists have gotten the song wrong, that it’s not really disrespectful of Tuscaloosa, or UA.

“I think we were very mindful of making sure of that,” he said. “If this song had just been about football, we would never have recorded it. There’s no point in that; it’s just ridiculous. Just kind of shunning a whole state, or a whole town, that’s not our goal at all.

“This is a love song, this is a heartbreak song, and it’s just kind of centered around college.”

Smith has been writing songs since age 6, and signed with Big Machine Records right out of high school. But he didn’t pen “I Hate Alabama:” It’s actually the first song Smith has recorded that he didn’t compose. Co-written by Hunter Phelps, Nick Columbia, Drew Green and Lee Starr, “I Hate Alabama” was pitched to Smith by his friend Phelps, knowing about his love for Tennessee football.

“We all kind of freaked out,” Smith said. “It really was a diamond in the rough. We thought this song could be really, really special.

“I think the magic in this song is that at the end of the day, it’s a compliment to Alabama….Then you get to the hook and realize it’s not about football at all. As a songwriter, that’s a perfect hook.”

It was cut together rather low-key, with his band at their producer’s house. Older brother Cooper Smith shot a video in their parents’ barn. Big Machine CEO and President Scott Borchetta called Smith up personally to talk about moving up the release date.

“It was out eight days after we posted the video, which is really unheard of,” Smith said, noting the wheels in a label’s machinery generally turn more deliberately. “And then Bama loses the very next day, which just threw gasoline on the fire.”

He’s gotten burns from within the Bama nation, but also love, from those who look past the obvious and see the Tide tribute within. Smith’s touring schedule will take him to a lot of SEC towns where fans might shout along with the chorus, he said. And they’ll return to Birmingham on Dec. 10, at Zydeco, but so far, there’s nothing booked in the Druid City.

“If I get to Tuscaloosa, I’ll just change the words to ‘I love Alabama,’” he said, laughing.

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