Sawyer Brown: Taking the Dirt Road

andrew kruse-ross | sawyer brown | may 2017

Long before “American Idol" or “The Voice" took to the television airwaves, “Star Search," hosted by Ed McMahon, sought to bring America's next big musical stars to television sets across the country. In 1983, the show's first season, the former backing band of pop-country singer Don King are looking to make their own way to country stardom and decide to audition for the show. The group, calling themselves Sawyer Brown, would go on to win the show's grand prize, but winning was never part of the plan.

“We had seen the pilot for the show and we thought no way are they going to pick us," says Gregg “Hobie" Hubbard, the band's keyboardist. “We knew that if we went in and auditioned, we could get a copy of the video of the audition. … We were going to use that audition tape to pitch around to get work."

After filming their audition, the band was told that the season had “pretty much" been booked already and that it would a while before they should expect to hear anything from the show's producers, if they heard anything at all.

Three days later, much to their surprise, the band received a call. The band was to fly out to Hollywood at the end of that week to begin filming.

“For me, I remember being like, 'God, I don't have enough money to fly myself out to California,'" says Hubbard.

Naturally, the studio covered expenses and travel for the group, but while the “Star Search" experience turned a lot of heads, it didn't instantly launch the band into stardom. Sawyer Brown had more work in front of them.

“At the end of the TV show, it wasn't like you got a record deal, it was a monetary thing … so our goal was what it had always been and that was to become a recording act."

It may be the case that some of what made Sawyer Brown such a success on national television hindered them when it came to landing a record deal. Sawyer Brown simply didn't fit the mold of country music at the time. The band repeatedly heard criticism from record companies that the band was too young or moved around too much on stage and as they didn't wear cowboy hats or boots, labels were unsure how they could market a group that was so characteristically not “outlaw" country.

“We were just kind of hard-headed enough to believe that what we were doing was right for us."

Simply being a band was also a strike against them where the record companies were concerned.

“In those days it was much, much harder to get signed as a band because there's always fear in the labels that you sign a band and they immediately break up."

The band may have been a little more Los Angeles than Nashville was accustomed, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Their experience on the West Coast had a few record companies taking notice, as well as wondering why they weren't already spoken for.

“The West Coast branch of these record companies didn't understand why Nashville had left us unsigned," say Hubbard. “They're going, 'Why haven't the Nashville branch of our label told us about you?'"

Ultimately, the band did land their record contract, but, for a band that was accustomed to performing up to five shows per night, six days a week, resting on their laurels wasn't an option.

“We immediately went back on the road, because we knew even at that time, that this wasn't the end of the road, this was just a stepping stone along it."

The band enjoyed success during the 1980s charting songs like “Leona" and “Step that Step" among others, but during the '90s, Sawyer Brown could do no wrong. The band landed Vocal Band of the Year awards in six consecutive years from 1993 to 1998 from TNN/Music City News, three CMT Country Music Awards and an Academy of Country Music Award in '97 for Vocal Group of the Year. The success came with a series of chart-topping songs including two that landed at the No. 1 spot, 1992's “Some Girls Do" and 1993's “Thank God for You."

The decade also saw the band expanding their sound to incorporate more ballads into their pop-country sensibilities. Songs like “The Walk" from the 1992 album “Buick" helped add another dimension to the group's sound and help further the group's charted success.

Hubbard explains that the new dimension added to Sawyer Brown's sound wasn't contrived, but rather a natural progression.

“I think we were growing up as people over those years," says Hubbard, “and I think that begins to reflect itself in the music. It wasn't like we sat down and had a band meeting and said we need to change our direction. Every album represents the best group of songs for where we were at that moment."

And those moments continue to accumulate for Sawyer Brown. The band, which labels once feared to sign for concerns about band longevity has been at it for 36-years and consists of four of its original five members. Only the lead guitarist spot for Sawyer Brown has changed over that time; original guitarist Bobby Randall left the group for family reasons in '91, and his replacement, Duncan Cameron, left the group in 2004 to pursue a lifelong dream flying for Southwest Airlines. Today, lead guitar duties fall to Shayne Hill.

So, is there a secret to keeping a band together for nearly four decades?

“I think the secret is a good sense of humor. Externally, things can get pretty crazy and pressure can get high, but I think we have a great deal of friendship there and a huge amount of respect, and we just get along; we laugh a lot."

While the days of performing 30 shows a week may be behind them, Sawyer Brown are still a band that loves life on the road and take to it regularly, performing roughly 100 shows per year — one of those shows brings Sawyer Brown to headline during Celebrate De Pere on Sunday, May 28 at 9:30 p.m.

Wisconsin is familiar territory for the band; they've played the state many times over their nearly four-decade career.

“We're glad to be coming back to Wisconsin, which is like a second home for us," says Hubbard. “We've played in Wisconsin more than any other state — truly. It's like a homecoming anytime we come back."

Catch Sawyer Brown on the main stage during Celebrate De Pere on May 28 at 9:30 p.m in De Pere's Voyager Park. For more information visit CelebrateDePere.com or SawyerBrown.com.

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