AS PUBLISHED IN KNIX MAGAZINE, JUNE/JULY 1999

 

THE ULTIMATE ROAD WARRIORS

 

By Nick Krewen

 

"I run about three miles a day, six days a week."

Little wonder that GREGG HUBBARD says his favorite activity is jogging.

As keyboardist for the beloved Nashville band SAWYER BROWN, "Hobie," as he is known by teammates MARK MILLER, DUNCAN CAMERON, JIM SCHULTEN and JOE SMYTH, knows what it means to go the distance.

For the better part of 18 years, Sawyer Brown has been running its own private marathon, a relay race of 16 albums and entertaining concerts, or should we call them "parties," that have set an energetic standard of excellence maintained by the band's enviable endurance.

The latest chapter, a vibrant album of Day-Glo country called Drive Me Wild  should ensure an eclipse of the 20-year-mark as the clock of the century calendar turns to 2001.

As much as he lives his professional life in sneakers, Gregg "Hobie" Hubbard isn't about to line up for a decathalon or triathalon anytime in the foreseeable future.

That would be work. He's enjoying himself too much.

"I swear to you we're having more fun than we've ever had," says Hobie from Sawyer Brown's Nashville-based management office.

"I'm not sure why, but I'm not going to even look for an explanation. I'm just glad."

Defying explanations may be the most consistent aspect of the spunky quintet's career. Popular contenders in a field that has a high mortality rate -- oh SHENANDOAH, RESTLESS HEART, PIRATES OF THE MISSISSIPPI and BOY HOWDY, where are you now? -- Sawyer Brown and DIAMOND RIO are the only two remaining bands from the '80s who have made enough of a lasting impression to be considered membership in a small club that includes ALABAMA, THE STATLER BROTHERS and THE OAK RIDGE BOYS.

And Diamond Rio is under half of Sawyer Brown's recorded age.

"A lot of times, bands seem to implode," Hobie offers. " I don't know if it's the personality thing, or if they lose their focus, but band's overall track records do not tend to be very long.

"I know that when we got signed, it was almost impossible to get signed as a group. They would only allow one group on the radio at any given time. The Statlers. The Oaks. Then Alabama. Now I think that door is opened more."

Hubbard says it's fine to take a more-the-merrier approach when you form a country band, but says you always have to keep the right vision in your periscope.

"This is all about everybody sitting down together and making music," he advises. "I think keeping that focus is what will keep you going."

Then there's that other  serious problem Hobie brings up.

"We do know that six drummers spontaneously combust every year," he laughs.

Now we know why Joe Smyth wears that flame-retarding jumpsuit in concert.

But seriously, folks, those 18 years of hard labor comes down to that one word ARETHA FRANKLIN croons all so well: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

"There's a whole lot of respect here," says Hobie."That counts for a whole lot when you spend as much time together as we do. We're awfully blessed because we genuinely get along. People don't want to hear that, but that's the truth.

"We're five knuckleheads from next door who happened to get a record deal. We take the business part of the business, when we have to, seriously. But all the hoopla stuff or individually taking ourselves too seriously, we just don't do. The good thing about being in the band is that if you do, there's four other guys to bust your chops if they think you've gotten a little full of yourself.

"You've got to be pretty tough skinned."

Hubbard says the Sawyer boys are also united when it comes to their artistic aspirations.

"Come hell or high water, we still believe in the music that we can make together. And it's worth riding out whatever else we have to to get to that."

The ride hasn't always been easy, nor have the streets always been paved with gold. Sawyer Brown has had to live with underdog status longer than most artists have careers.

Maybe it was their Star Search  victory back in '84. Maybe it was their ability to hit #1 with only their second single, "Step That Step." Whatever the reason, the Nashville community has never been able to accept Sawyer Brown on a level that merits their accomplishments. And it's not from a lack of trying on Sawyer's part: 16 albums, some gold and a precious few platinum; a 1985 CMA Horizon Award; several CMT and TMN Best Group Awards; and such pedal-to-the-metal party hits as "Step That Step," "Betty's Bein' Bad," "Out Goin' Cattin'," "Some Girls Do," "The Boys And Me," and even their recent Top Ten twist-and-shouter "Drive Me Wild."

"I laugh sometimes, because it's almost like people can't pay us a compliment without also making a little dig," says Hobie. "It's almost unlike an unwritten rule. To say that you like this album, you'd have to preface it by saying, `You know, I didn't used to like your stuff.' I think we get a kick out of that. "Inside us, I don't know if we'd tell you that we feel like we've made it, whatever that means. I think there's still that hunger of trying to get that music out there and hope somebody's going to listen to it. There's not a lick of taking that for granted in this band. We still feel that a lot, and it's good, because it's kept us working harder.

"I think if we had ever been a critic's darling band or an industry darling band, that would not have been good for us. The way the whole thing has played out is that we've worked as hard as we've needed to work, and that's been good for us."

For its incredibly intense work ethic, which at one time included an average of 275 dates a year, although now it's been relaxed to an average 125 per, Sawyer Brown certainly merits its fair share of accolades. But what they deserve is a multi-million-selling album, something that's eluded the Boys throughout their career. Grounds for frustration?

"Yes and no," replies Hobie. "When you stop and think about it, you wish all of the albums would do that. Not to be pollyanna about it, but those albums did the best they could at the time, and people that did hear it latched onto it, that's really all you can deal with.

"You can't say, well, how come so and so sold 7 million and ours didn't? That's the kind of stuff that begins to mess with your head. You have to be realistic about it.

"I figure that if you have any piece of the pie, you have nothing to complain about. We're just happy that we still have the chance to make it."

Drive Me Wild  may be album # 16, but Sawyer Brown still finds the new and improved exciting.

"The biggest thing about Drive Me Wild  is that there's so much more vocal stuff going on than what we had done in the past," says Hobie. "There are a lot more interesting harmonies, and we also had the luxury spending a lot of time experimenting. On 'Moon Over Miami', we kept working on it until it sounded right. It was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and full of anticipation because at the end of the day you never knew what the creature was going to look like.

"In the past, and especially the beginning, we'd barely have enough time to have an album done before it had to be turned in. There was never time to live with the material. With this one, we cut more songs than we needed -- thirty -- and lived with them to see which ten or eleven felt the strongest at the time."

As a result, Drive Me Wild  went through two or three incarnations before the die was cast.

"It kept changing," says Hobie. "There were two or maybe three different times we said,`That's it. We're done. Cut it.' Then we went back in. In fact, with "Break My Heart Again," and "Playing A Love Song," we cut those with barely enough time to make the album. We found them at the last minute."

Such creative flexibility requires a strong camaraderie, and the roots of Sawyer Brown's chemistry can be found the moment Gregg Hubbard and singer Mark Miller met each other while both attending high school in in Apopka, Florida.

"We met in eighth grade," Hobie recalls. "It was when he and his brother came to our school when they first moved to Apopka . Everybody thought they were twins at the time, so I do remember the girls being taken with them. They were the new kids in town, so they got a lot of attention."

The Dayton-born Miller, who moonlights as a pro-basketball player, was already gaining a reputation as a hoops fiend. The music didn't come til much later, as Hobie recalls.

"That really didn't happen until after high school. I think he suffered through chorus class, but not enthusiastically. Once we were both in college, he came by the Pizza Hut where I was working and said, 'You know, I've written some songs. Maybe you ought to come by and put some piano down on them.' His main interest had always been basketball, so I'm thinkin', `I can't believe he's writing songs. He actually took 15 minutes away from the court.' And his stuff was really cool. It was a pretty interesting little deal even from the beginning."

Miller had known of Hubbard's talent from his days of accompanying the choir, as well as church. After both had graduated from high school, the duo headed to Nashville.

The othercharter members of Sawyer Brown -- Schulten, Smyth and guitarist BOBBY RANDALL-- were already backing recording artist DON KING, whose brief tenure with Epic was noted with a handful of lower Top 40 hits including "The Closer You Get."

"Mark got a job there, and everybody else in the band was already working with Don. The piano player quit a few weeks later, and so I auditioned and got the part."

When King was promptly dismissed from Epic in late '81, "SAVANNAH" was born. A picturesque flora-and-fauna-filled Nashville road called Sawyer Brown prompted an inspirational name change, and before they knew it the band undertook a gruelling tour of the Holiday Inn circuit.

"The hardest point for us individually was before we even had a deal, when we were playing those club dates, five sets a night, five or six nights a week," recalls Hubbard. "That was a real hard existence. I think at various points everybody was getting discouraged. Thank God, it was never everybody at the same time. You had four other guys going, `Aw man, in a week you're not going to feel this way.' Even early on, we were a pretty good support group for each other."

Then Star Search  came a' callin', and through a 13-week elimination playoff, Sawyer Brown resoundly defeated all challengers. $100,000 (U.S.) and a built-in audience of 40 million people, plus an offer from Capitol/Curb were among the treasured victory spoils.

To prove they weren't a fluke, Mark Miller penned Sawyer Brown's first #1 song "Step That Step" and struck paydirt as their second single release ever. An offer from KENNY ROGERS to make two opening act tour appearances certainly didn't hurt, either.

By 1991, Bobby Randall decided he had had enough of the road, and former AMAZING RHYTHM ACES ("Third Rate Rendezvous") guitarist Robert "Duncan" Cameron stepped in. He has remained the band's only personnel change since the Don King days.

There's a sixth, unseen member of Sawyer Brown who toils behind the scenes: songwriter and co-producer MAC McANALLY.

"Mac (ital) is (ital) the sixth Sawyer," confirms Hubbard. "He's been a real inspiration to us because he believed in us at a time when there weren't a lot of other people who cared about us getting in there and making music. Mac was said to us, `You guys just figure out what you want to do, and I'll help you go in there and get it onto a record.' Not to mention as a writer, Mac has written some incredible songs for us as he and Mark together have also done. That has been a real blessing."

When they're away from the road, the individuals of Sawyer Brown scatter and take up independent careers and hobbies.

Mark Miller in particular has been making a darn good go of alternate careers. Despite his five knee operations, there's his position as back-up point guard for the Continental Basketball Association's Fort Wayne Fury -- one that he has had to forsake for this year due to Sawyer Brown commitments -- and a professional sports contract that guarantees him $500 a week.

"The biggest basketball habit is what he brings to this entire picture in that he's most team-oriented person that I know," says Hobie. "There is not a lick of , okay, I'm getting my part of this first, and then everybody else can just fall in place. There's none of that with him. He's extremely team-oriented. I think that's what kind of kept all this going...is that there's no one person who is saying, `I need mine. I've got to get my share of the spotlight first and foremost.'"

There's also Dirt Road Farms, a Polled Hereford Cattle Farm located near Franklin that Mark operates with his brother Frank. So when he says he's going to sing until the cows come home, people can take that to the bank.

"Everytime he goes home the cows are there," Hubbard laughs. "He and his brother have this cattle thing going on that they love. The cool thing is that it's something that they enjoy doing that has absolutely nothing to do with music. I think that's probably a great release. They've got a farm that's in such beautiful country that it's relaxing. I know nothing about cattle, but I know it's beautiful out there."

We play word association with the remaining members: Jim? "Boat. He loves being out on his boat." Duncan? "Airplanes. He loves flying. Loves working on his single-engine plane." Joe? "A civil war nut. He's one of those who will don the old uniform, don'tcha know."

And Hobie, what do you like besides jogging?

"I love reading, going to the movies, just kind of putzing around my yard. When I'm home, I like working on writing. Even though it's work-related, it doesn't feel that way."

Another interesting fact about Hobie is that unlike his bandmates who have a pair of children each, he's never been bitten by the marriage bug.

"That's right," he laughs "And when people remind me of that, I'm never sure if it's misery love company or if they're looking after my wellbeing. But I think it'll happen one day.

"I'm a truly family-oriented person. I probably enjoy spoiling the other guys' kids more than anybody in the world. I don't think there's a greater job in the world than being a parent. So I wouldn't say I'm resistant, just that it hasn't happened yet."

There's also that lasting friendship with the host of Star Search , former JOHNNY CARSON sidekick ED McMAHON.

"Ed McMahon mixes the best martini," says Hobie. "He was great to us. His wife at the time was really into country music, so I think he spent more time with us than he did with a lot of acts that were on there. I still hear from him I bet three times a year. He always knows when we've got new CDs coming out, or he's seen us on TV. So that's pretty nice."

But he never shows up with representatives of the Publisher's Clearing House?

"I'd like to win that sweepstakes, don't get me wrong," jokes Hobie. "Talk about hitting close to where we live. Everytime he calls I wonder, `Should I go to the door now? Is my giant cheque out there?"

 

-30-

DISCOGRAPHY

1985 -- Sawyer Brown

1986 -- Shakin'

1986 -- Out Goin' Cattin'

1987 -- Somewhere In The Night

1988 -- Wide Open

1989 -- The Boys Are Back

1990 -- Greatest Hits

1991 -- Buick

1991 -- The Dirt Road

1992 -- Cafe On The Corner

1994 -- Outskirts Of Town

1995 -- Greatest Hits 1990 - 1995

1996 -- This Thing Called Wantin' And Havin' It All

1997 -- Six Days On The Road

1998 -- Hallelujah He Is Born

1999 -- Drive Me Wild

 

#1 HITS

1985 -- "Step That Step"

1992 -- "Some Girls Do"

1993 -- "Thank God For You"

AWARDS

 

1985 -- Country Music Association, Horizon Award

1996 -- Academy Of Country Music, Vocal Group

THANKS: Sandy Lovejoy

 

©1999 Nick Krewen, Octopus Media Ink

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