Heartland Scores a No. 1 Its First Time Out

Band Still Overwhelmed By Sudden Breakthrough

Heartland is so new to success that Jason Albert, the band’s lead singer and frequent spokesman, still gives straight answers. When he talks about the group’s achievements-chief among which is having the top country song in America-he sounds more like he’s describing a stroke of good luck than years of hard, goal-directed work.

Albert is disarmingly modest about the band’s debut single, “I Loved Her First,” which jetted to No. 1 last week. “Anybody could have done this song because it’s written that well,” he says.

And what about the fact that Heartland’s signed to a small, upstart label-Lofton Creek Records-instead of a major one? . “To tell you the truth,” Albert confides, “we were just happy that anybody was going to give us anything. Even if it’s an independent [label], it’s a first step, a baby step. But it’s actually been the best thing that could have happened to us, because we’re the priority at the label, and they’re taking such good care of us.”

Since all six band members write, why is it that none of their songs is on their just-released album, also called I Loved Her First. “We had some songs we’d like to have seen on the album,” Albert admits, “but the material we were getting pitched we thought was better than ours.”

It’s going to take some heavy media training to subdue such refreshing candor.

Like their idols from Fort Payne, who took the state’s name as their own, Heartland is an Alabama band, based in Huntsville. They’ve been performing under their present name since 1994 and had a guest spot on Alabama’s last June Jam festival in 1997.

“All of us live about two or three miles from each other,” Albert says. “We’ve been that way for 12 or 13 years.” He adds that they plan to continue living in their hometown, just as Alabama did. “We love it there. That’s our home, and it’s not that far from Nashville. You can get there in about an hour and 20 minutes. So it’s perfect for us.”

Besides Albert, Heartland is made up of Craig Anderson on rhythm guitar; Todd Anderson, drums; Keith West, bass guitar and background vocals; Mike Myerson, lead guitar; and Chuck Crawford, fiddle. Albert and the Andersons were the band’s original members. Crawford is the newest addition.

“We’ve been plugging away,” Albert continues, “coming back and forth to Nashville and doing demos and showcases and that kind of thing. . . . We all had to have day jobs in order to make it work. We had an electrician in the band, an industrial parts guy, a head of security, a bank manager. I, myself, worked at a golf course. We’ve been scrounging for a long time. But we just kept our eye on the dream [and hoped] that somebody would give us a chance one day. . . . . And now it’s gone crazy. We’re just having a great time with it.”

“I Loved Her First” is the soliloquy of a conflicted father who-while happy to see his daughter deeply in love-is sorry to lose the “freckle-faced kid” he remembers. It is a tearjerker of the first order and appears destined to be the soundtrack of wedding parties and DVDs for ages to come.

Albert says he and fellow band members first heard the song “a good year and a half ago” at a songwriters’ showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird CafĂ©. The singer was the lavishly talented Walt Aldridge, who had co-written the song with Elliott Park.

“We were all just totally in shock over it,” Albert recalls. “We asked [Aldridge] to send us some material, and when we got a CD in the mail, that song was on it. . . . We couldn’t believe that nobody had recorded it. Come to find out, they’d pitched it around town several years. Everybody passed on it because they didn’t want anybody to think that they were old enough to have a child who was getting married. But we thought, ’A good song’s a good song.'”

Aldridge began helping the band record demos to pitch itself to labels. One of these demos went to Dan Hollander, a disc jockey at a country radio station in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. “We sent our stuff to anybody that would take it,” Albert says. Hollander thought “I Loved Her First” was a “great song,” according to Albert, and recommended it to his long-time friend, Mike Borchetta, the president of Lofton Creek Records.

Albert says Borchetta called the band on a Friday in early May of this year and that they signed a recording contract the following Monday. “As many years as we’d been working on [getting a deal],” Albert marvels, “it happened over a weekend. . . . We’d been turned down just about by everybody before that.”

Because the band enjoyed working with Aldridge, they picked him to produce the first album. By the time Heartland signed to Lofton Creek, they had completed four demos, only two of which made the final album.

The label released “I Loved Her First” in June. It caught on with radio almost immediately, despite the fact that Heartland had absolutely no airplay track record. The song debuted in Billboard’s July 8 issue at No. 57 and shot up 15 places the following week. Except for two stalls of two weeks each-which is common in the notoriously clogged charts-the song climbed steadily toward the top. It completed that journey in only 17 weeks, a remarkably short time for any act but almost unheard of for a beginning one.

The same week “I Loved Her First” went No.1, Heartland’s album debuted at No. 3. It even scored a No. 11 entry on Billboard’s all-genres album chart.

Aldridge (with various co-writers) has five songs on the 11-cut album. Also represented are such heavy-hitters as Frank Myers, Jason Sellers and Mark Narmore. The only hit Heartland covers in the collection is Aldridge and Tommy Brasfield’s “No Getting Over Me,” which earned Ronnie Milsap a No. 1 in 1981 and a subsequent Grammy.

“We thought it would be fun to have a cover on there,” Albert says, “and [Walt] said, ’What about this one?’ We were in shock that he even proposed we cut the song. We’re like, ’Absolutely! What can we do to put our spin on it?’ The songs was done so well to start with that we really didn’t shake it up that much. I think the only thing we did was put a guitar solo in there instead of a saxophone solo. It’s still got that Muscle Shoals, bluesy kind of feel to it.”

Testimonies to the emotional power of “I Loved Her First” have been rolling in, Albert reports. “We’ve heard stories not just from daughters and fathers but also from mothers, too. We’ve gotten e-mails and calls from people who’ve lost their fathers. The other night, we were at a show and a girl came up crying and gave us a hug. She said, ’Thank you so much. I haven’t talked to my dad except on the phone like twice in 15 years. And he’s here at the concert with me because of that song.’ Yeah, that’s special. . . . . Every day we hear another touching story.”

The acclaim has also raised the band’s media visibility. “We got to go out to the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson out there in LA,” Albert says, “and they took us downstairs to the Price Is Right set. You’d have thought there were six kids in there, jumping around with their video cameras. It’s pretty wild.”

So far the band has toured with Brad Paisley, Big & Rich, Lonestar and, more recently, Montgomery Gentry. While they’ve not completely settled on what their follow-up single will be, all signs point to the raucous “Let’s Get Dirty,” which has already made its mark as a crowd-pleaser in Heartland’s live shows.

“Our live show is pretty energetic,” Albert explains. “We don’t want everybody to think that we just put out ballads all the time.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.