Diamond Rio Stretch Out Completely

If Diamond Rio ’s new album takes listeners through some extreme stylistic turns, that was the idea all along. The album, Completely, contains the most experimental music the band has ever recorded, but it also delivers the kind of hard-core country that may surprise many longtime fans.

Guitarist Jimmy Olander tells CMT.com, “We hadn’t totally come up with the concept, but we were toying around with the idea of a double album — doing one traditional disc, along with a more contemporary piece. That just didn’t seem to work out. Actually, we were having trouble figuring out the [financial] numbers in the publishing. Cutting the really country stuff made the more progressive stuff easier to do — and cutting the progressive stuff made the more country stuff easier to do because all of a sudden you’ve got a fresh palette.”

Drummer Brian Prout was disappointed that the double CD didn’t materialize. “Unfortunately, country music has blinders on as far as what’s acceptable — and what isn’t,” Prout says. “I know there are a lot of business aspects that dictate that you can only have 10 or 13 songs on a CD. We ended up cutting 15 songs for this album.”

Still, bassist Dana Williams notes that the mere idea of recording a double CD provided more leeway in choosing songs. “We were looking for some really, really country things,” he says. “This record reaches from a Bill Anderson song all the way to a Diane Warren song. That made for a very wide open deal.”

Along the way, the band delves into jazz, western swing, an ambitious instrumental piece and a track that Olander refers to as “Steely Dan meets Flatt & Scruggs.” The latter song, “The Box,” melds banjo, funk and country vocals.

“’The Box’ is incredibly progressive,” Olander says. “It was one of those bizarre things where we went, ’I don’t even know what that is, but I like it.'” Prout adds, “On every record we do, we’re continually looking for something that’s going to turn some heads and make us stretch as players. When we did ’The Box,’ we didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off or not. We figured, ’Let’s give it a day and see what we come out with.'”

Equally innovative is “Rural Philharmonic.” Olander has been working on the instrumental — originally titled “Rural Philharmonic for Banjo and Orchestra” — for a solo album. The guitarist was anxious to turn the classically-influenced composition into a Diamond Rio instrumental — especially after he learned that a large string section was already booked for recording the album’s title track.

“I was just using canned strings and samples at home,” Olander explains. “Then I found out I was going to be able to do this with a 44-piece string section. I had about 13 days to finish the composition, to turn it from banjo piece to Diamond Rio piece.” That involved devising each instrument’s part and then working with a friend who transcribed Olander’s ideas into written musical notes. “When I’m talking about working around the clock,” he says, “I’m talking about working around the clock. It was a piece of work to do, but it was so rewarding.”

Completely debuted at No. 3 last week on Billboard’s country album chart. The first single, “Beautiful Mess,” continues to climb the Top 10.

“The album is appropriately titled, although there was debate as to whether ’Beautiful Mess’ or ’Completely’ should be the title cut,” Prout says. “I look at this album and think it’s a beautiful mess. It’s a beautiful mess of an eclectic blend of country songs. But Completely kind of summed it up like, ’This is the complete Diamond Rio experience.’ Probably the only thing that’s really missing is a true die-hard bluegrass song. But there’s enough of that influence intermixed with the traditional stuff.”

Eight albums into their career, the biggest challenges facing Diamond Rio involve finding great songs while ensuring that they don’t repeat themselves musically. Olander says, “We’ve been blessed with some great songs and tried really hard to do good productions on them. You’ve just got to get the best material and do the best you can with the production. If you’ve already been to a bunch of other musical places, then the result is that you’re hearing stuff like ’The Box’ and you’re hearing stuff like ’If You’d Like Some Lovin” or ’Something Cool.’ With ’Beautiful Mess,’ it’s almost a sexy Chris Isaak/Duane Eddy thing. We’ve never done that. We’re just trying to continue to grow and go places we haven’t gone before.”

“It seems like it’s getting harder to find these great songs,” Williams adds. “They’re out there, but you’ve just got to continue to weed and weed through them. A lot of songs we get pitched sound like Diamond Rio. Usually, that’s the type of songs we don’t want to hear. When we’re doing a record, we’re looking to reinvent the wheel and not do what we’ve done before.” He adds, laughing, “It’s funny, though, because when we go to reinvent the wheel, it usually ends up sounding like Diamond Rio.”

But even Diamond Rio’s sound has evolved since the band scored its first hit in 1991 with “Meet in the Middle.” Olander notes, “It’s hard to notice until I go back and listen to earlier recordings. It’s definitely gotten more layered. After we’ve developed through Unbelievable and One More Day and some other tracks that had a little bit more happening sonically, it’s really hard to go back and produce a record ’Meet in the Middle’ anymore.”

“There have been a lot of subtle changes, but most of it has to do with nothing but experience,” Williams says. “On the first record, we were very Olander-driven. Over the years, we’ve been able to bring in more elements. It’s still guitar-driven, but I know that vocally we have changed a little bit. If you listen to our first record and then you listen to the last two records, you’ll hear a lot more harmony in places it would have never been in the early years.”

Prout adds, “When I look back at our first album, heck, we didn’t have a clue. We were just cutting what we felt were good songs. We were just thrilled to be there and had no idea the kind of impact in our lives and career that ’Meet in the Middle’ was gonna have.”

When Williams, Prout and Olander formed Diamond Rio in 1986 with lead vocalist Marty Roe, keyboardist Dan Truman and mandolinist Gene Johnson, they intended on having a lengthy career. Of course, that’s how all bands are formed, although few achieve Diamond Rio’s career longevity. When asked whether he predicted Diamond Rio’s long-term success, Williams laughs, “At the time you first have a hit, you don’t think anything. All you want to do is just rejoice all the time. To think that it’s lasted this long, it’s pretty incredible. But I continue to give credit to the songs and our ability to search for that song. I really believe that’s a big key to it. Having Mike Clute as our co-producer certainly helps, too.”

Prout adds, “I look at longevity as being the fact that Elton John and Billy Joel can go out and get, on the minimum, $75 a head for the cheap seats and sell 12,000 tickets a night. To me, that’s longevity. I don’t feel like we’ve either peaked or have anywhere to go but to continue on. Whether or not I have an interest 10 years from now to be on the road 150 days a year, I can confidently say, ’No, I don’t.’ But ask me the same question in nine years.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.