If you want to call Sawyer Brown “the Rolling Stones of country music,” the guys won’t argue with you — as long as you’re talking about endurance and not lifestyle. They’ve been burning up the charts and the interstate highway system since 1984. And its frenetic energy still pulsates through Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, its 20th and latest album on Curb Records.
Produced entirely by Mark Miller, the band’s founder, lead vocalist and dervish, the album mixes up-tempo celebrations of youth (including a cover of the Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”) with sedate reflections on adult life. Miller wrote or co-wrote six of the songs. Contemporary Christian music heavyweight Steven Curtis Chapman penned or collaborated on four.
This is the band’s first studio album since 2002’s Can You Hear Me Now. It is the first to feature guitarist Shayne Hill, who stepped in last year to fill Duncan Cameron’s shoes. Completing the lineup are keyboardist Hobie Hubbard, drummer Joe Smyth and bassist Jim Scholten.
Speaking to CMT.com from his home in Franklin, Tenn., Miller says the long spell between albums hasn’t really hurt the band.
“I think our booking agents were more worried about it than anyone else,” he explains. “It did not affect our touring at all. In fact, the touring has actually gotten bigger. I don’t know if that’s because of the reputation of the kind of show we do or what. But it seems like the crowds got bigger and, in a lot of ways, younger. Kids who [first] came with their parents are now in college and bringing their friends.” Miller concedes, though, that the band fell out of the media spotlight.
In albums past, Sawyer Brown worked with such producers as Randy Scruggs and Mac McAnally. But the leisurely pace of the current album turned it into a do-it-yourself project. “Mac was pretty busy,” Miller explains. “He tours with [Jimmy] Buffett, and Randy was doing a couple of other projects. This album wasn’t slated to be this long of a break. It just ended up being that way. We had gone into the studio and recorded tracks, and they started sounding good. It just kind of happened that I produced it. It wasn’t anything that was a conscious effort.”
The nature of the band also had a lot to do with the way the album emerged, says Miller. “The luxury of being in a band is that when you write something, you can go in and record it. We have our own studio. … Then there’s the process of, ‘I’ve written a new song. Does it beat what we’ve already got [recorded]? And does it fit in when you listen to the album from start to finish?’ We always try to let the best song win out regardless of how an album might be put together.”
Hill is only the second addition to Sawyer Brown’s original lineup. Cameron replaced guitarist Bobby Randall when he left the band in 1992. Cameron dropped out in May 2004 to become a pilot for Southwest Airlines.
“Shayne is from South Dakota,” Miller says. “He moved to town as a songwriter. The funny thing is, even when Bobby left the band, we didn’t have an audition [to replace him]. Duncan was just in Muscle Shoals, Ala., hanging out when we were recording with Mac down there, and Mac had told me about him. Duncan came in and played for me on ‘Some Girls Do,’ ‘The Dirt Road’ and ‘The Walk.’ When we got ready to go out on the road, we didn’t know what we were going to do [for a guitarist], and Duncan said, ‘Well, I’ll just go out on the road with you.’ After the first show, he had such a good time, he said, ‘If the job’s available, I’d love to be in the band.’ That’s the way that went down.
“When Duncan called me and told me he was going to leave, I just called a couple of friends. I’m not much in touch with the Nashville musician scene [because] we’re out [on the road] and I’m a dad. So the two friends that I called both told me about Shayne, unbeknownst to each other. I called Shayne up, he came over and we talked for a little bit. He was definitely interested. What we did was go into the studio and pull Duncan’s part off the Live album and [have Shane] play along with the live recordings. He was just magic, and he’s an excellent singer.”
With so many different albums on the shelf, it seems only natural to ask Miller if he ever listens to them to see how Sawyer Brown’s music has developed. The question sets him to laughing. A lot.
“Well, probably not, because I don’t like to look at some of those pictures of what I was wearing,” he says. “Sometimes the striped pants and the gold lamé jackets are a little much. But, you know what? I can laugh about it. And I wouldn’t change anything we did because I feel like every little of piece of what you did got you to where you’re at.”
Having broken onto the scene as a young, dynamic act continues to work to Sawyer Brown’s advantage, Miller acknowledges. “There’s an accountability and a responsibility that comes with being in our band. It’s always been very youth-oriented, very energetic. We have the same attitude that the Stones have, you know. They’re the premier rock band, and we feel that as a country-rock band, there’s this expectation of us. When we go out and do a show, not matter how young or new the new hot act [we’re working with] is, they’re not going to be able to keep up with us. They’re just not. They don’t have the stamina, and they can’t rock as hard. That’s just our attitude when we go out to play.”
Certainly, no one labors harder to bring an audience to its feet than Miller. He says he developed his explosive performance style in church. And such songs as “800 Pound Jesus” and “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” attest to his love of the flamboyant in religion. “I still go to a Pentecostal church,” he explains. “Those songs to [people in more] conservative religions may be a little bizarre. But to me, ‘Mission Temple’ would have been sung in my church.”
At this point, Miller pauses to make an essential theological distinction. “There would have been no passing around of snakes and drinking of strychnine,” he says with a chuckle. “We only go so far. But growing up in church, that’s kind of how I saw our songs being performed. … Hobie is Presbyterian, so I have to make sure every now and then that he bangs on that piano instead of playing it.”
Miller admits that he wants Sawyer Brown’s music to have a moral dimension. “I hope so. I hope when you listen to our albums — even going all the way back to the early ones — I always hoped that there was something on there that made you think. I had lunch with [Curb Records owner] Mike Curb yesterday, and we were talking about ‘They Don’t Understand’ [the band’s current single]. I said, ‘Mike, I’m really at the point where I don’t want to just make a hit record. I want to make music that means something.'”
For a long time, the band has sprinkled its repertoire with covers of country and pop hits, among them “The Race Is On,” “Six Days on the Road,” “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” “Looking for Love” and the aforesaid “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” Miller says there are other favorites they’ve already recorded but have not yet gotten around to releasing. “I tell people, ‘We’ve actually got a lot stockpiled. You’re just hearing the best ones.’ … We’ve got a pretty rocked out version of ‘Wabash Cannon Ball.’ There are a couple we cut back in the late ’80s that we just thought were too rock for the times that I’m going to have to revisit. We did this version of ‘Dang Me’ that’s way over the top.”
This year, Sawyer Brown will do approximately 80 shows, including a tour of Canada that starts in November. Touring isn’t as much fun anymore, Miller admits. But it’s not just because of the physical wear and tear. “Rock stardom has entered into country music,” he laments. “There’s much more of a prima donna element, a much more pampered element out there. When we first came out, we toured with Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on that big tour in ’85. … It was incredible. But Kenny and Dolly were so accessible. They were backstage. … It was more of a big family once you were in. And they were influences. I would watch Kenny Rogers’ show and Dolly’s every night — to study them.
“Now, quite honestly, you’ll be at festivals, and there’ll be 12 acts, and no one will talk to anyone else. Everybody has their own entourage, everybody has their own peeps. I enjoyed the early days, when we’d go out with Charlie Daniels and the [Nitty Gritty] Dirt Band. Half the time, everybody would be on one bus going to the next city. Jimmy Ibbotson or Jeff Hanna [from the Dirt Band] would come up and say, ‘You guys are pretty hot in this next town. Why don’t you guys close [the show]?’ That honestly happened. That wouldn’t happen today. I miss that part of it.”
Still, Miller says he probably enjoys performing more now than he ever did. “I don’t enjoy the travel at all,” he emphasizes. “I wish I could go out in my front yard and play and then go back in my house. But I understand people from Seattle can’t make the trip to Franklin. … There’s this appreciation, this feeling of being blessed to still be able to do this that our band has. When we go out and perform, you’re watching five guys that are pretty humble.”