When they were just kids getting started, Sawyer Brown probably didn’t know country music had so many rules.
Rule No. 1: Don’t win the national “Star Search” competition.
Rule No. 2: Don’t sing bright, upbeat country-rock songs like “Step That Step,” “Some Girls Do,” “Betty’s Being Bad” or “Out Goin’ Cattin’.”
Rule No. 3: Don’t wear funny pastel clothes and pink tennis shoes.
Rule No. 4: Don’t dance around onstage like some panty-waist rock star.
They were young innocents, though, and Sawyer Brown set out to break every one of those rules and probably others nobody even knows about.
“We didn’t wear bright-colored shoes to hack people off or for gain, we did it because that’s what we liked,” said the band’s keyboard player, Gregg “Hobie” Hubbard.
“We were in our early 20s, and everybody does what they do differently in their 20s than they do down the road.”
At some point, however, some people started paying less attention to the music than to whether their shoes matched their outfits.
“We realized that’s not what the focus should be and we began to change,” Hubbard said.
It’s too bad, really, because Sawyer Brown was for a long time one of the freshest things happening on the country circuit. And, in retrospect, some of the same people who used to put them down now give them credit for opening the door for such country-pop acts as Diamond Rio and even Garth Brooks.
The band went about their work with such a joyful exuberance that you didn’t mind that their songs were more pop than country - they were carving out their own, unique niche, take it or leave it.
“They were one of the first acts that got people interested in country because they were cool and hip,” said Tim Roberts, program director at Spokane country music station KDRK.
Roberts knew the band when he was working in Charlotte, N.C., and Sawyer Brown was on the road.
“They were one of the great club bands of all times,” he said. “It’s ‘Bring your dancing shoes when Sawyer Brown comes to town’ - of course, Mark (Miller) is such a great dancer himself … they’d have people literally dancing on the tables.”
The band originated in Orlando, Fla., but moved to Nashville to establish a base of operations and soon began to build a following throughout the Southeast.
“We lived in Nashville, but that’s probably the one place we never played,” Hubbard said. “We played there once, for three weeks at a little club that we opened and closed. We found we could make more money on road.
“When we first started doing shows outside town at these clubs, we had kids who’d say ‘We don’t like country, but we do like you.’ And that’s the bottom line.”
Though Sawyer Brown toured Alabama, Florida, Georgia and as far north as Michigan, Hubbard said they had their greatest success in Texas.
“The type of music we were doing - the energy and the style - is similar to what we do now, left of center. And I think those cowboys in Texas liked to just get in there and have a good time.”
In retrospect, the “Star Search” victory may seem like a mixed blessing, but when it came in 1983, it paid off in cash - $100,000 - and a recording contract.
The band’s first record was released in 1984 and produced three hits, “Leona,” “Used to Be Blue” and “Step by Step,” which went to No. 1.
The band won the Horizon Award for the best up-and-coming country act, but then the backlash set in.
“People said, ‘You’re too young, you move around on stage too much, you don’t look like cowboys,”’ Hubbard said.
“But we just were hardheaded and stuck with it. We just loved what we were doing and the fact that we were constantly getting work added fuel to the fire. We thought, ‘Somebody likes this,’ and we believed in each other, so we just kept going.”
Tim Roberts believes that Sawyer Brown was a victim of bad timing.
“A lot of radio programmers weren’t supportive because they were ahead of their time, just like Vince Gill was ahead of his time in the mid-‘80s. They were out on the edge, they had a rock beat and driving rhythms.”
Their wardrobe and frontman Mark Miller’s onstage antics tended to obscure their talents, he said.
“They’ve never really been appreciated as being a flat-out good band - Mark’s such a show-stealer you overlook the fact that there are five other guys standing up there and that they’re all great musicians. Plus, Mark and Hobie have become a good songwriting team; they have great songs.”
Ultimately, the songs rescued Sawyer Brown from the in-between world of popular success and industry rejection - one song in particular did the trick, a 1992 ballad called “The Walk.”
“The Walk” is a touching observation on the passing of generations, and it seemed to provide the Nashville establishment with enough reason to get on the bandwagon. The reviews have grown increasingly respectful and the hits have come at a steady clip.
And in fact, “The Walk” heralded a new maturity in the band’s songwriting and a succession of songs have dealt with adult subjects. “All These Years” was a powerful examination of the effects of adultery on a marriage. “Cafe On the Corner” concerns the plight of farmers.
“This Time,” the current single from their upcoming “Greatest Hits, 1990-1995” CD, is about a couple determined to make their troubled relationship work. It’s No. 5 on the charts this week.
“It’s great to see them have this kind of success because they really worked for it,” Roberts said.
But even though the band is enjoying its new-found respect, Hubbard says Sawyer Brown is proud of its past.
“‘The Walk’ is absolutely my favorite song that we’ve done,” he said, “but we weren’t exactly lepers before ‘92.”
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: TICKETS Sawyer Brown and Toby Keith will perform at the Spokane Coliseum Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22.50. Sawyer Brown will also play the Kibbie Dome in Moscow on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22. All tickets available at regional G&B Select-a-Seat outlets, or by calling 325-SEAT or (800) 325-SEAT (credit cards only).
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