Common Connections

Some things don’t change. Sawyer Brown started out as a pack of road warriors back in the early ’80s and they’re still rolling down the highway to the next gig 30 years later. While their evolution in country music can be seen in hairstyles in their many videos — from curly long hair, teased hair, mullets, gray hair and no hair — these guys are still doing what they love to do and it shows in those videos, their music, and their live performances that are all about showmanship.
The band is bringing that flare to Laughlin with a performance at the Avi’s Grand Ballroom at 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19.
Seriously, if they could bottle Mark Miller’s flamboyant, energetic dance moves, there’s no telling how they could change the world. Whenever he danced around in videos for “Step That Step,” “Thank God for You,” and “The Boys and Me,” you couldn’t keep your eyes off him, and you weren’t really sure if it was music movin’ him, natural ability or choreographed moves, but it didn’t matter, he was just crazy fun to watch.
Founded in ’81, Miller (lead vocals), Bobby Randall (guitar), Jim Scholten (bass guitar), Joe Smyth (drums) and Gregg “Hobie” Hubbard (keyboards) were country pop singer Don King’s road band. After King retired, the guys decided to become their own band.
The band played up to five sets a night, six days a week, until they auditioned for the TV show “Star Search” in 1983. They auditioned just to get the videotape to promote the band, yet ended up winning the $100,000 grand prize and a record contract.
The band signed with Capitol Records (in a joint partnership with Curb Records) and scored a Top 20 hit with their first single, “Leona,” in 1984. That success was quickly followed by their first No. 1 hit, “Step That Step.” While they were still a relatively new band they had amassed enough songs for a Greatest Hits album.
Part of the band’s success was due to singer-songwriter Mac McAnally, who had written several songs for the group. The McAnally-penned songs, mostly ballads, helped to re-define Sawyer Brown, who up until that point had been reviled by many critics for being a “bubble gum” pop act that emphasized style over substance.
The band scored a number of Top 5 and Top 10 hits — including two more Billboard No. 1s with 1992’s “Some Girls Do,” and 1993’s “Thank God for You,” which Mark Miller co-wrote with McAnally. By 1995, Sawyer Brown had enough hits for a second Greatest Hits package. The album, titled Greatest Hits 1990 to 1995, included two new singles, “This Time” and “I Don’t Believe in Goodbye,” which became Top 5 hits.
Bobby Randall left the group and currently Shayne Hill is the lead guitarist, a position he’s held since 2004.
To date, Sawyer Brown has released 23 albums, of which three have been certified gold in the U.S. More than 50 of their singles have entered the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, including three No. 1 singles.
The group also received a Horizon Award from the Country Music Association in 1985, as well as Vocal Group of the Year in 1997 from the Academy of Country Music and five Vocal Band of the Year Awards from the TNN Music City News Country Awards.
Currently the band is celebrating its 30-year anniversary with the release of their 23rd album, Travelin’ Band, a collection that speaks to the life and times of Sawyer Brown.
The guys have played more than 4,000 shows in those 30 years, logging mileage well into the seven figures. And as the band clearly shows in its new CD, the wheels are still turning and an ever-open road stretches out ahead.
“We are just who we are — period,” states Miller “From the beginning, we didn’t want to sell ourselves as something we weren’t. We’re blue collar, working class guys from the neighborhood who just happen to get up on stage at night and make music. OK, guys from the neighborhood who made some questionable clothing choices in the ’80s — but it was the ’80s, after all.”
However, the band survived those hair and fashion choices to always remember why they chose to play music in the first place — that connection to people.
“It’s always humbling when someone comes up after a show and tells us that they hear themselves or their family in our music,” Hubbard added. “I hope that they can look up there on stage and see themselves — because we can sure look out at them and see ourselves.
“Every day we’re on the road, one of the best parts of the day is walking around whatever town we’re playing in and just soaking it in — listening to folks talking in restaurants, just watching life unfold like it always does —one story at a time,” he said.
For Sawyer Brown, it’s always been about the stories.
“What we try to do — what we’ve always tried to do, I think, is capture those moments that matter, and capture them in a song,” Miller states. “It seems to me that it’s really the small moments in life that are the big ones, anyway.”
Sawyer Brown has been singing our lives back to us now over the course of 23 albums, and the Miller-produced Travelin’ Band continues that tradition. The band has never been satisfied to concentrate only on the two or three songs that might become radio singles; they view an album as offering a more complete picture than that.
“We have always wanted there to be a reason for someone to buy and to listen to the entire album,” Miller states. “Maybe on any given day, you’re drawn to the up-tempo stuff —but maybe the very next day, it’s one of the ballads that hits home. I know it’s like that for me as a music listener.”
“That’s one of the great things about music — the connection it makes,” Hubbard adds. “And the fact that different songs forge different connections for me when I listen to music keeps me believing — keeps us believing — that every song matters.”
One of the album highlights is “Come Along,” classic Sawyer Brown heightened by the added vocal harmonies of Southern gospel artists Ernie Haas and Signature Sound.
“When we performed on the Dove Awards a couple of years ago, we were blown away by Ernie and Signature Sound,” Miller states. “I mean, the harmonies are off the charts — but it’s not just that. They’ve got an energy that makes you want to jump up and shout ‘Amen!’”
Having written numerous songs together over the years, including “The Dirt Road” and “Drive Me Wild,” Miller and Hubbard co-wrote “Deliver Me” on the new CD.
“It’s about taking those chances that we all take in relationships —chances that we hope turn out for the best,” Hubbard said.
“We started the song a few years ago, and as we began working on songs for this project, the final stages of writing it fell into place. I think it was meant to be with this batch of songs,” Miller added.
“We go with our gut when it comes to our music. It’s what we’ve relied on since day one. Even if I can’t define it — and I’m not even sure I want to define what that ‘it’ is — we know when a song feels right for us. And if it doesn’t feel right for us, we don’t want to sing it.”
In addition to their own songs, Sawyer Brown has put their stamp on a handful of well-chosen covers over the years like “Looking For Love,” “The Race Is On” and “Six Days on the Road.” The band adds to this list its remake of Paul Davis’ 1978 ballad “Cool Nights” on the Travelin’ Band CD.
“We’ve always loved this song and we’ve kicked around the idea of recording it for years,” Miller said. “We decided to give it a shot on one of the first days of this project — and when we did, it just felt right. It’s like when we recorded “This Night Won’t Last Forever” — the original was such a big part of our musical memory that we only wanted to record it if we felt like we could do it justice — and if we felt like we could bring our sound to it and have it work.”
The title track, penned by Miller, tells Sawyer Brown’s story, with their heart firmly planted right in the middle of everything they do.
“I sat there speechless when Mark played me the song on his acoustic [guitar],” Hubbard said. “Every single moment in that song rang true, took me back — every moment. All I could do was sit there and nod my head.
“Every night we play that song in the show, I look at my brothers beside me on stage and think how blessed am I that I get to share the ride with these guys. And then I look out at the audience and I’m humbled that those folks have taken this ride with us.”
And it really does all come down to those people in the audience for this band. “We’re all in this together — all of us,” Miller added. “Just like the line in “Travelin’ Band” says, ‘Now I want to take this time to thank you’ — I wanted our fans to hear a thank-you coming straight from me.”
Known for their high-energy, no holds barred approach to the concert stage, the band continues to fill venues across the country with the same enthusiasm they have had from day one.
Sawyer Brown is about connection. In fact, it’s likely safe to say that connection continues to be the driving force of the band.
“I’m a real believer that things happen for a reason — that they unfold the way they do because there’s someone bigger than us driving this bus,” Miller said. “We know we still have a lot of miles in us. We’ve got our bags packed, got our gear ready, and we’ve got plenty to sing about. We want to see where the trip takes us next.”


SAWYER BROWN

Avi Grand Ballroom

Sunday, Nov. 19 (8 p.m., doors 7 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets