Sons of the Desert fan club members are packed like sardines into the SoundShop Recording Studios off Nashville's Music Row, but nobody seems to mind. The crowd is waiting to hear new music from its favorite band, which hasn't released an album since 1997. When the Sons finally emerge and the thunderous applause dies down, frontman Drew Womack has something to share before the show starts.
"I want to thank you guys for sticking by us during our downtime," he says, as the rest of the guys nod emphatically in unison.
After releasing the critically acclaimed Whatever Comes First three years ago, downtime is something Sons of the Desert never thought they'd face so soon. The title track was a Top 10 hit, and follow-up singles "Hand of Fate" and "Leaving October" garnered great reviews. But in today's volatile country music market, the band quickly found itself struggling for airplay and parting ways with its label, Epic Records. Luckily, the Sons have rebounded nicely, finding a new home on MCA Records and recording the album Change.
"It was a lot more laid back in the studio this time, believe it or not," Drew says. "We thought it would be high stress, but when we cut the songs it felt so good. What you do is you track, then you overdub. Right after we tracked you could just feel it. It felt like a record immediately."
The band, which includes Womack, his guitarist brother Tim Womack, bassist Doug Virden, keyboardist Scott Saunders and drummer Rob Steitler, co-produced the album with Mark Wright (Lee Ann Womack) and Johnny Slate (Joe Diffie). They were allowed to add banjo, strings and steel guitar, something they had wanted to do on earlier projects. The band called on fellow artist and friend Keith Urban for the driving banjo line in "Ride," a song that pretty much sums up the Sons' philosophy: "No looking back, no regrets/Play it safe if you want to/You can't go wrong if you walk through life/Walk on/I'm gonna ride."
Drew co-wrote "Ride" and four others on the record, including one of the strongest cuts, "What I Did Right." The song was inspired by his grandfather-in-law, who was a prisoner of war.
"I've always wanted to write something for the World War II generation," he says. "Then we saw Saving Private Ryan, and it just kinda hit home what my wife's granddad did."
On Change, Womack's songwriting and the band's musicianship seem more confident than ever. The guys attribute that confidence largely to the support of their new boss, MCA President Tony Brown. The label chief signed the guys shortly after they left Epic.
"I read about it in the newspaper," Brown remembers. "So I came right to the office, called their manager and said, 'Is it true? If it's true I want to talk to somebody right now.'"
Brown was already a Sons fan, having caught the band's performance during the "New Faces" show at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. His belief in their talent, not to mention the contract to back it up, was a much-needed balm after the band's disappointing parting with Epic.
The official word is that the band left the label over "creative differences." Those differences involved the song "Goodbye Earl," which the Sons found, performed live and recorded for their second Epic album. The Dixie Chicks, who are on the Sony imprint Monument, heard the song and wanted to record it, too. The Chicks eventually were allowed to release the song as a single, and the Sons' sophomore album, which included their version of "Earl," was never released.
While the band has no hard feelings toward the Dixie Chicks, the guys were unhappy to lose the songs that they had recorded for the shelved project.
"Sony owns the songs," Womack says. "We can't record that music for another four years -- even the songs I wrote."
MCA did buy the rights to "Albuquerque," a song from the unreleased Epic album. The Sons recut the song for Change.
In the days after the band left the label, they did a lot of soul searching, which ultimately made them a tighter unit.
"We were very frustrated," Womack says. "We thought about it, prayed about it and ended up sticking together. We went out and did summer shows, wore shorts, kicked back and just basically remembered why we got into this business in the first place."
The renewed confidence in their abilities gave the Sons the moxie they needed to insist on creative input for Change. Most of the vocals were recorded during a month-long marathon in the Sons' own studio, built in the driveway of Drew's rural home outside Nashville. By all accounts it was a laid-back, pressure-free atmosphere, which is just the way the guys like it.
"There are million-dollar rooms [studios] in Nashville, but I think there's something about being in a place you're comfortable with that's attractive," Tim Womack says.
"We had fun, plus we were learning the equipment," Drew adds. "Tim is the engineer here. He's the only one willing to read the manual."
The band also broke with recent industry trends and convinced the record label to go with a more artsy CD cover -- a rendering of a buffalo nickel superimposed on a prairie painting -- instead of the usual band photo.
"A few weeks ago I walked through the country section at a music store, and I was blown away that everyone thinks the only way to market an artist is to put their picture on the front," Drew explains. "It [the country section] looked like a yearbook, with everyone's portrait on the front. I was like, gosh! Glamour Shots! Give me a freakin' break.
"You look back at all the classic records -- the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival -- all the killer record covers were either paintings or great art. The people that put these packages together are artists, so let them work."
With new product now on the shelves, the guys say it's time to go back to work. They already have added stellar background vocals to new labelmate Lee Ann Womack's critically lauded hit, "I Hope You Dance." Next, they'll shoot a video for their second single, "Everybody's Gotta Grow Up Sometime," a quirky tune written by Stephonie Seekel and "Amazed" co-writer Chris Lindsey. On Saturday (July 1), the band will hit the road opening for Dwight Yoakam for a string of dates through September.
"The coolest thing about this is it's nice to be touring with an artist whose show you really want to watch," Virden says. "We've always been fans of Dwight. In fact, we used to cover a few of his songs when we were back in Texas."
In between the Red, Dwight and Blue Tour, as it's called, the Sons will travel on their own Spare Change Tour, a series of free concerts that will take them back to the club circuit.
"We like that environment," Virden says. "It's nice to do any dates, but we feel more at home in the clubs, because that's where we came from."
Although admission to the shows will be free, the guys will put out jars to collect spare change from concert goers. The proceeds will go to the Jason Foundation, a teen suicide prevention organization based in Hendersonville, Tenn.
But even with tour dates in front of them and a major label behind them, the band isn't betting on the second run to be easy. The first single from the new album, the title cut "Change," received lots of airplay on CMT but peaked on the Billboard country singles chart at No. 45. Still, the guys are proud of the record they've crafted, and they're ready to get back to what they feel they do best.
"We have a good sense of who we are," Drew says. "Even if we don't dance around or put on a circus or swing from the rafters or anything, we try to have a classy show. We want to be somewhere in between what Vince Gill does and what Lyle Lovett does. Have fun with the crowd but definitely the focus is on the music."