Regardless of what they’ve accomplished in the recording studio, some bands just sound better live. You can count Lonestar in that category, although the band members have tried to close the gap in recording its new album, Coming Home.
“I think that was our main objective this time in going into the studio,” lead vocalist Richie McDonald said recently during an interview at CMT’s offices. “We just wanted to go in and recreate what we do live. People really enjoy the live show, the energy we have on stage, and we wanted to take that from the stage into the studio.”
After several albums with producer Dann Huff, Lonestar enlisted Justin Niebank to produce the new album. Niebank, who served as audio engineer for Lonestar’s Greatest Hits and Let’s Be Us Again, previously worked on blues projects for Alligator Records and with several roots music acts, including Blues Traveler and Ian Moore.
“We basically had a producer decide he didn’t want to produce us anymore,” McDonald said. “We came to a point where I actually went to Wal-Mart and bought about 15 different CDs. We all listened to music on the bus to try to find out who was going to be our next producer. And we had this little demo that Justin had produced on a group called Britton Jack, and this sound just jumped off this little demo. We all knew that’s who we wanted to produce this record.” As good as the demo sounded, McDonald jokes, “There was no telling what he could do with a budget.”
Instead of expanding its sound, the band started scaling back the instrumentation during the recording sessions.
Keyboardist Dean Sams said, “I think our main focus when we started doing the Coming Home CD was, ’What do we sound like live?’ I mean, do we really have five guitar players on stage? Do we really have three fiddle players and four keyboard players and all this stuff you have to have in a lot of productions that we’ve done in the past because Dann really likes to layer sound? We really just wanted to make it sound like who we are as a band. Back when we started out, I remember we rented a little rehearsal hall. Each of us had one instrument and just played and sang. That’s what this record reminds me of. It’s simplistic, but it shows every aspect of each individual member of this band.”
Niebank’s talent as an audio engineer proved to be a major asset throughout the project.
“A producer’s job is to find the songs and figure out how he wants to put everything together,” McDonald said. “But Justin had also the luxury of saying, ’OK, I want the record to sound this way.’ He knew exactly how to make it sound that way and not depend on an engineer to do it. So right down the line from guitar sounds to the keyboards — everything — he knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
Drummer Keech Rainwater added, “Mixing an album is the most crucial process of putting an album together. It’s like putting a film together. That’s where the real magic happens. His ears, having those ears of gold like that, allowed him to mix the album really well. That’s one of the reasons it sounds so good.”
Although Lonestar found success with “My Front Porch Looking In” and other songs extolling family life, Sams said Niebank wanted to downplay the band’s more sentimental side.
“We have a great song on the record that Richie wrote called ’What’s Wrong with That?’ but he [Niebank] thought we needed to toughen things up a little bit, get a little edgier,” Sams said. “So we have songs on this record like ’I Am a Man’ and ’Loud’ that are a little bit edgier, a little bit tougher.”
However, it’s not lost on the band members that their greatest commercial successes, including “Amazed” and “I’m Already There,” have been ballads. In many instances, though, the simpler instrumentation makes the ballads sound even stronger.
“I think if you don’t put as many tracks on it, you can get better tone on all the tracks you do have,” said guitarist Michael Britt. “It lets the vocals stand out, especially on the song like ’I Never Needed You’ with Sara Evans, who sings that with Richie. That track is so sparse, there’s just so much room for their voices to take up the speakers. I even play baritone guitar on that just so I don’t play a lot of frequencies that are even in the vocal range. To me it’s just, that song opens up everything for the vocals to do what they do.”
Asked whether he and co-writer Tommy Lee James had a female voice in mind when they wrote “I Never Needed You,” McDonald replies, “We actually had two. We demoed it with a female vocalist, and we thought either Sara or Martina [McBride]. Actually, we asked Sara first. … I mean, they’re both great singers. They both have incredible voices, but Sara came in and did the song. It was one of those things that we thought wasn’t going to happen because we scheduled it three times. The first two times, she had to fill in for LeAnn Rimes on Nashville Star. The third time she was actually sick, she had the flu, but she just came in, and she’s just incredible.”