Song Selection Derailed Lonestar’s Success, Guitarist Says

Michael Britt Optimistic About Band's Future Without Richie McDonald

It was a grim winter for Lonestar. Its latest album wasn’t selling well, and its longtime record label had declined to renew the group’s contract — in spite of the fact that Lonestar had sold more than 6 million albums since its 1995 breakthrough. Then came the real crusher: Richie McDonald, lead singer, principal songwriter and focal point of the four-man act, announced he was leaving to start a solo career.

McDonald’s decision left guitarist Michael Britt, keyboardist Dean Sams and drummer Keech Rainwater with the choice of either hanging it up as a group or searching for a new lead singer who might match McDonald’s magnetism.

Britt says McDonald revealed his intention to leave after BNA Records had severed its ties with the group.

“We were actually sitting down to a meeting to talk about other possibilities for our record deal,” he explains. “That’s when Richie told us he wanted some time to think about what he wanted to do. Then he let us know a couple of weeks later.”

To compound the shock, says Britt, McDonald jumped the gun with his announcement.

“He started leaking it out to the media before we’ve even decided to do that,” Britt says. “So we’re still trying to play catch up to Richie at this point.”

CMT.com attempted repeatedly to reach McDonald to get his account of the split, but his representatives declined to make him available for an interview.

Britt admits that McDonald’s action has caused hard feelings from his fellow bandsmen.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” he says. “It’s his decision. I think what he really wanted was for the band to just end. The other three of us were really in no position to want to do that. We were still getting excited about having a new record deal. He’s got to do what he has to do to make himself happy. I just hope he understands we aren’t the ones quitting. We’re wanting to keep going and find ways to make it happen and make it more fun.”

After Lonestar hit it big with “Amazed” in 1999, the group seemed unstoppable. That song held the No. 1 spot on the country charts for eight weeks. Later came “What About Now” (four weeks at No. 1) and, in 2001, “I’m Already There” (six weeks). Lonely Grill — the 1999 album that yielded “Amazed” and “What About Now,” plus the shorter-lived No. 1′s “Smile” and “Tell Her” — sold 3 million copies.

And the chart-toppers kept coming — “My Front Porch Looking In” in 2003 and “Mr. Mom” (two weeks) in 2004. But then things began to slow down. While Lonely Grill, I’m Already There (2001) and From There to Here: Greatest Hits (2003) all achieved platinum or multi-platinum certification, the group’s next album, Let’s Be Us Again (2004), reached only gold status. Coming Home (2005) didn’t even go gold, and Mountains (2006) has sold only 89,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the service that monitors retail record sales.

So what happened to Lonestar’s luster?

“It’s hard to point the blame in one direction,” Britt says. “Just from my hindsight-is-20/20 perspective, I think we painted ourselves into a corner between songs that were being written and songs that the label was putting out. They started putting out a bunch of family-type songs. I think that really pigeonholed us. The majority of the band didn’t really want to continue doing that same thing. But that’s what kept getting put out.

“We had songs like ‘I’m Already There,’ ‘Front Porch’ and ‘Mr. Mom’ kind of back to back. I think that really limited our appeal to a mass audience. When we had songs like ‘Amazed,’ anybody in love could relate to it. Suddenly, [it was] ‘OK, they’re in love, but they have to have kids’ and then, ‘Well, the kids have to be this age.’ It kind of really started limiting our audience. I think that’s what started the slowdown.”

The dip also corresponded with the other members conceding the right to pick songs to McDonald.

“With the Lonely Grill album, we all sat down and we all had pretty much equal say in what songs got cut,” Britt says. “And that seemed to be very successful. As time went on, I think maybe Richie tried to assert himself a little bit more into the song-selection process. Honestly, it didn’t turn out that successful.

“Now, when he had a song like ‘I’m Already There,’ it was a great success. But I don’t think any of us would have picked ‘Class Reunion’ to be a single. Even when ‘Mr. Mom’ was released, [producer] Dann Huff said, ‘I think it’s a hit, but I don’t know if that’s the road you all want to go down.’ It turns out he was probably right.” ["Class Reunion" peaked at No. 16 on Billboard's country singles chart.]

Britt explains that Huff quit producing Lonestar in order to work with Rascal Flatts. “He thought it would somehow be a conflict of interest [to stay with us]. He was really excited about doing them, and he just bowed out.”

Fortunately for Lonestar fans, the group continues to be active. It has recently racked up several prominent TV and radio appearances, and a spokesman says McDonald has agreed to stay with the band into November.

Britt reports that the members have already met with “a couple of record labels,” and he surmises that the label they eventually go with will probably have some say in who comes in as McDonald’s replacement.

“There are a few things we have to look at,” he says. “We do have a catalog of hits that we want to stay true to in a way. We need to find somebody that can sing those and really do a good job and kind of make them their own [without sounding] too off the wall or too different. … Hopefully, in a year from now we’ll all look back and say, ‘Yeah, that was for the best,’ because, honestly, I don’t see how Lonestar could have kept going the way it was going. It just didn’t seem to be working. The direction wasn’t working.

“Richie wasn’t happy. Who knows why? He was writing the songs that were getting to be singles and all that. Hopefully, he’ll be happier doing what he wants to do, and, hopefully, we will get to reassert ourselves as equal members and find someone that will really be excited about going out on the road and making records.”

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