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Members include Duncan Cameron (joined band, 1990), lead guitar, dobro, mandolin, steel guitar, background vocals; Gregg "Hobie" Hubbard, keyboards and background vocals; Mark Miller, guitar, vocals, songwriter; Bobby Randall (bandmember, 1981-90), lead guitar; Jim Scholten, bass; and Joe Smyth, drums. Addresses: Record company--Curb Records, 47 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37203.
Sawyer Brown is one of the few bands in country music history to be thrown into the spotlight early in their career as winners of a national award--and then forced for the next decade to try and live it down. However, such obstacles didn't stop the group's energetic members from giving their all for their music. While the Nashville-based country music industry proved to be a tough nut to crack, the band's high-energy compositions have won them legions of fans along the road to Music City acceptance. After over 10 years of constant touring and recording, the members of Sawyer Brown have finally gained a measure of respect from their Nashville peers, as well as critical acclaim as both songwriters and musicians.
The band got its start when Ohio-born singer/songwriter Mark Miller hooked up with Gregg "Hobie" Hubbard while both men were studying at the University of Central Florida in the late 1970s. After moving to Nashville in 1981, Miller and Hubbard formed the band Savannah along with bassist Jim Scholten, guitarist Bobby Randall, and drummer Joe Smyth. The group soon decided that they needed a more original moniker: they changed their name to the Nashville street where they came to rehearse, and the band Sawyer Brown was born.
Miller's rough-edged vocals provided a perfect instrument for the up-tempo songs about cars and girls that made up much of the group's early material. Their music was a reflection of the bandmembers' own youth and exuberance--which sometimes bordered on too much of a good thing, according to many critics. And while the group was full of confidence after winning the music competition on the syndicated television program Star Search in 1984, their award was an honor that didn't mean much to the Nashville music industry. Peter Cronin noted in Billboard, "To country music's cognoscenti, Sawyer Brow was a little too uptown and showbizzy to be taken seriously.... [But] in retrospect, the band has done a lot to make country music safe for the bolo-tied slickness of Diamond Rio and the high-energy showmanship of Garth Brooks."
In 1985, the year following their Star Search award, the band broke their first Number One spot on the country charts with "Step That Step"; the single stayed on the Billboard country charts for 21 weeks and earned the band the Country Music Association's Horizon Award for new talent. Unfortunately, gaining a position on the charts turned out to be the exception for Sawyer Brown, rather than the rule. "Musically, what happened to us is that we were always out there on the edge a little bit, and I think radio took a very strong swing toward traditional music for a few years," Miller told Edward Morris in Billboard. "We continued to do what we were doing and kind of got into a no-man's land."
Sawyer Brown was determined not to let their lack of radio play affect them; with a rigorous touring schedule of over 220 shows per year, they built a base of loyal fans throughout the United States. "We developed such a cult following that we were able to tour year-round, and we really didn't notice the difference between having a hit song and not having one," Miller asserted in the interview with Morris. Sawyer Brown's energetic performance on stage was one of the reasons their concerts continued to draw large audiences; the group's musicianship and songwriting abilities boosted record sales among their growing following and accounted for their longevity despite lack of mainstream success during the 1980s.
The year 1990 marked a turning point for the band. With the departure of Randall, Sawyer Brown welcomed guitarist/songwriter Duncan Cameron on board--and good things began to happen. The group's 1991 album The Dirt Road--featuring "The Walk," a single written by Miller--as well as Cafe on the Corner, released the following year, each received favorable critical reviews and went on to become gold records.
Sawyer Brown had claimed their position as one of Nashville's top country bands, and the popularity of "The Walk" helped solidify their spot among country music's most respected acts. A poignant look at the growth of a relationship between a father and son, the song garnered several media Top Ten honors and held chart-topping positions for weeks on end.
"That song was kind of an ace in the hole for us," noted Miller in a Curb Records press release. "We believed in it so much that we put our hearts and souls into promoting it. We knew it had the potential to strike some emotional chords with people." The song did just that, with critics as well as fans: "I know my own thinking began to change the day I was riding down the road and first heard 'The Walk,'" admitted Country Music contributor Bob Allen. "I remember thinking that day, 'Damn! What a great song! Who the hell is this?' I remember how floored I was to discover it was Sawyer Brown."
Another possible reason for the band's newfound popularity is the emotional maturity reflected in their lyrics in recent years. "I wrote 'Step That Step' when I was 23 years old," explained Miller in the press material. "It's been more than ten years now, and I think we look at life differently. There's a much broader worldview we bring to our writing now. I don't think that means you rock any less. I think we rock as hard as we ever did. It's just that we have something more to say."
Sawyer Brown's wealth of original material, most of it penned by Miller, was supplemented when songwriter Mac McAnally hooked up with the group on their 1992 release, Cafe on the Corner. McAnally's "All These Years," a tense portrayal of marital infidelity, was one of the album's three Number One singles and one of the band's biggest hits. The successful songwriting partnership of Miller and McAnally found its way into the recording studio when McAnally signed on as co-producer of both Cafe on the Corner and 1993's Outskirts of Town. In the studio, McAnally balanced Sawyer Brown's unrestrained enthusiasm with more spare, focused guitar accompaniments than the band had used on past projects, reflecting the group's growing image as chroniclers of the simple lives of working class folks.
The mix of songwriting, studio direction, and maturity seems to have worked, and in the wake of projects like Cafe on the Corner and Outskirts of Town, Sawyer Brown has been accepted into the Nashville fold: the nominations the group received in 1993 for honors from both the American Music Awards and the Academy of Country Music can attest to that fact. But winning the TNN/Music City News award for vocal band of the year in 1993 had a special significance: as an award generated by the support of the group's fans, it reminded Sawyer Brown of their audience's role in advancing their growth as a group. As Smyth told the Nashville Banner, "We got a renewed sense of our direction, musically, and I think that showed.... Over the ten years we've been recording, we've all matured--the songwriting, the performance, us as individuals. The energy is still there, but we've all grown up a bunch."
by Pamela L. Shelton
Sawyer Brown's Career
Group formed as Savannah, c. 1981; changed name to Sawyer Brown and worked the club circuit in Nashville, TN; signed with Capitol Records, 1985; released first Number One single "Step That Step," 1985; signed with Curb Records, 1990.
Sawyer Brown's Awards
Winners of Star Search competition, 1984; Horizon Award, Country Music Association, 1985; named TNN/Music City News vocal band of the year, 1993; video group of the year award, Country Music Television (CMT), 1993.
- Selective Works
- The Boys Are Back, Curb, 1989.
- Greatest Hits, Curb, 1990.
- The Dirt Road (includes "Some Girls Do" and "The Walk"), Curb, 1991.
- Cafe on the Corner (includes "All These Years"), Curb, 1992.
- Outskirts of Town (includes "The Boys and Me" and "Drive Away"), Curb, 1993.
- Shakin', Capitol.
- Buick, Curb.
- Cackett, Alan, Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Crown, 1994.
- Periodicals Billboard, May 23, 1992; August 7, 1993.
- Country Music, May 1994.
- Country Song Roundup, January 1994; April 1994.
- Nashville Banner, August 13, 1993.
- Stereo Review, November 1993.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Curb Records press release.
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