It’s certainly not an easy thing to make it in the music business. For the many hundreds, even thousands, who make their way to Nashville each year to try and turn their dreams of musical success into reality, there is no “magical formula” for making it big. Some will struggle in local clubs for years, hoping for that moment when they will be noticed by some industry maven, while others seemingly make the transition from Nashville transplant to superstar in a matter of months. Talent alone isn’t enough to get there. It requires that uncertain mixture of circumstance and content. Call it fate, destiny or just plain luck — some will make it, and some won’t.
For CMT’s January Showcase Artist, Lonestar, the roller-coaster ride to the top has sometimes been dizzying. Formed in 1992 by keyboardist Dean Sams and lead vocalist Richie McDonald, the band spent their early years on a punishing road schedule that included nearly 300 dates per year. In 1994 the group played at the opening of Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon club, attracting serious attention from record labels for the first time. Signed to BNA, Lonestar released its self-titled debut in 1995, hitting with Top 10 songs like “Tequila Talkin'” and “Heartbroke Every Day.” It was in 1996 when the band really began to make big waves, with the engaging song and video “No News.” Cleverly written by Mark D. Sanders, Sam Hogin and Phil Barnhart, “No News” became the band’s first No. 1, remaining at the top of the charts for three weeks, an unusual feat for any artist. After that the rise to the top seemed to happen quickly — the album went to the top of the album charts and became a gold seller, and the group was named the Top New Vocal Group at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Country Weekly and Billboard both named Lonestar their top new country group of the year.
“I think that at that point in our career we thought, ’We’ve made it,'” remembers McDonald following a surprise appearance on TNN’s final taping of Crook & Chase. “Three weeks at No. 1, we were selling a few records then we finally got a gold record, so we thought, ’Wow, this is cool, we finally made it.’ We’ve always felt like “No News” (videoclip) is the song that put us on the map.”
Not so fast. After enlisting the help of producer Dann Huff, Lonestar released their third album, Lonely Grill, earlier this year. The entire album features the kind of catchy, pop-influenced sound that currently dominates country charts. The first single, “Amazed,” (videoclip) became the most chart-successful country music single since the 1950s. Reigning at the top for a jaw-dropping eight weeks, “Amazed” has become much more than the group’s signature song. It’s been their ticket to the top.
“It’s sent us to another level,” agrees McDonald. “In our minds, we don’t see how anything could top this, but we’re always hoping and dreaming that somehow we will.”
“We’re proud of our first albums and what they’ve done for us,” says Sams. “But this album, and this song in particular, shows what a great singer Richie is. It is so powerful, and when the harmony kicks in we’re delivering the sound that we’ve always felt we had.”
In such a changeable market, it’s not uncommon for an act to struggle to develop an individual identity or sound to appeal to the masses. Lonestar believes that now, for the first time, they have fully become who they really are.
“In the early ’90s, Alabama and Restless Heart were huge influences on this band,” muses McDonald. “When you heard their music on the radio, you could tell who it was. Since we were a vocally-driven band, we thought we could do the same thing they were doing. We kind of feel like our music lies somewhere in the middle of Alabama and The Eagles.
“The first two albums we did have an identity problem, people not knowing who we were on the radio, because we had two lead singers (former vocalist John Rich is now pursuing a solo career). We made the decision to make that change and have one distinct sound, and that was the first thing we looked at. Then we changed producers, which for us made a huge difference. We have to give credit where credit is due — Dann Huff finally found a sound for this band, which we truly feel like is Lonestar. People can turn on the radio and hear one of our songs, and they’ll usually know right off the bat it’s us. I just think we’re doing the right thing and doing what it takes.”
Some might argue that Lonestar’s changed sound is more reflective of conformity to the fickle market than to the development of a truly unique sound, but the members of the band strongly disagree.
“The Eagles are one of our greatest influences, and when I was growing up, The Eagles were never rock or country, they just had good music,” asserts guitarist Michael Britt. “That’s what we always try to focus on. We’re definitely a country band, but we try to take a look at the music and say, ’This is a really great song,’ and let it touch all people, whether it’s country or rock or whatever. For us, that’s job No. 1.”
“There’s a fine line you have to walk between being commercially successful and artistic,” says Sams. “You just have to find great songs to start out with, and then just put as much of yourself as you can in the recording. I think that’s what we finally tapped into on this album. Richie really put his whole soul into it, and that’s what you have to do. The listeners aren’t as dumb as some people may think they are, they really know when someone’s insincere.”
“There’s a reason groups like Alabama are still around after 20 years,” says McDonald. “They’ve been themselves, and their music is commercial. People love it, they love listening to it, and they love singing to it. I think that’s kind of where we are right now. It’s kind of a compromise between what we want to do, and what people want to hear out there. To the label it’s a business. It’s a business to all of us. We could be delivering pizzas, mixing pig feed or running a bar or whatever. We chose the music industry, and we sell records. Basically that’s what we’re doing.”
And they’re doing it well. Their current single, the ballad “Smile,” is working its way up the video and radio charts. And if things continue to go as well for Lonestar in the new year as they have in 1999, it’s going to be a very nice ride. Make no mistake, Lonestar intends to be around for awhile.
“Everybody’s talking about bringing in fans to country music, and some people worry if you go outside the strictly country scope,” notes Sams. “But the great thing about songs like ’Amazed’ is that so many fans are trying country for maybe the first time. We’re not changing who or what we are, we are just helping bring more fans to country music. We hope so, anyway.”