"I ain't first class and I ain't white trash -
that's who I am, and who our fans are..
They're somewhere in Middle America, the people who shop at Wal-Mart
-- and we're proud that we are those people.
...I mean, I'm a father, a husband, an extremely hard worker, a true believer
and an eternal optimist!
I believe in people, that we're here to love each other & ourselves.
We're here to share everything: ourselves, talents, ideas, truths, knowledge lives.
That's why our music connects. And it's where the songs come from."
-- Mark Miller
The world of Sawyer Brown is filled with dirt roads, small towns, little thrills, tiny moments and intimate connections... but mostly, it's about recognition of how major those things really can be: every day people seeing themselves in each other, the 5 men onstage and their songs. For the Apopka, Florida-bred band, these are songs of the common man delivered without mercy, only a relentless commitment to the freedom and fun that only a night out among good friends can allow.
"We got some tall tales that we love to tell
May not be true, but we sure do remember'em well
We work real hard to have a little fun
Roll up our sleeves & get the job done..."
-- "The Boys & Me"
"We came out of the notion we were there to entertain people, to make sure everybody had a good time," concedes creative catalyst Miller, known as much for his hyperkinetic performances as for writing "Some Girls Do," "The Dirt Road," "Hard To Say," "Step That Step," "This Time," "The Boys & Me," "Thank God For You" and "The Walk." "You're looking at a bunch of blue collar people here, who were raised to put the work in, to make sure the people are satisfied and who really love being on that stage and seeing the people letting it all go. Somebody once told me `If you can't have fun at a Sawyer Brown show, you can't have fun...' I don't know, but it would sure be nice if it was true."
After 23 years, 3500+ shows, gold and platinum albums, a smattering of awards and more long odds than any act you can think of, Sawyer Brown remains a band you can count on. Never ones to get above their raising, they have a deep appreciation for the heart of small towns, rural realities, lives lived in common places and truths so basic they go unnoticed.
But along the way, while all kinds of acts were racing by and then falling by the by, Mark Miller and company were amassing a string of hits that defined the worldview of regular people living between the coasts - people ignored by the media mongers and tastemakers. Along with the aforementioned Miller-penned hits, there were plenty of other big records "Betty's Being Bad," "The Café On the Corner," "All These Years," "Used To Blue," "Heart Don't Fall Now," "This Thing Called Wanting (And Having It All)," "This Night Won't Last Forever," "Leona" and "Treat Her Right" as well as fearless attacks on classics like George Jones' "The Race Is On" and Dave Dudley's truckers' rallying cry "6 Days On The Road." where they bounce up and down on the mainframe like a trampoline -- tattooing their trademark high energy, utterly committed performances onto country radio's somewhat conservative sound.
"It was a different time," remembers bassist Jim Scholten. "People thought we were too different, too outside the box... and it took a lot to get us happening. But we were about playing, 5 sets a night anywhere they'd let us, until `Star Search' happened. Even then, we were signed out of L.A. But we knew one thing: we knew that the people, especially the country music fans, loved what we were doing."
"It's hard and heavy, Lord, day and night
It's the way we love and that's the way we fight
We can't stay together, can't be alone
We can go for good, but we can't stay gone..."
-- "This Time"
Whether the little band who auditioned for "Star Search" solely to get the videotape to send to prospective buyers, but then went on to win the whole thing - becoming the original "American Idols" in the process -- were unlikely country stars or not, they had a lot of heart and they never gave up. It's been one of the defining truths of a career that's always been about taking it to the people... and not getting caught up in the popularity contests on Music Row.
"I believe, this is the best band in the whole world," says semi-pro basketballer Miller, getting his game on. "I mean, okay, except for the Stones. I'll put these guys onstage against anybody - and I know who's gonna walk off with the crowd."
"It's true," continues drummer Joe Smyth with a laugh, describing their unique connection between band and audience. "The energy onstage is what keeps the fans coming back - and their energy is part of what keeps us rocking so hard... and we only rock harder as the night goes on. For us, it's like the more we play, the harder they push us and the better it feels. After an hour and a half, we're slamming harder than when we hit the stage, and it just feels incredible."
The seeds for this unlikely intensity were sown in some equally unlikely places. Mark Miller was raised Pentecostal, where the music in church threw down every bit as hard as what they do onstage - and that combustive sense of musical eruptions fired an intense immersion in all kinds of music.
"You have no idea," says the soft-spoken frontman. "People look at me offstage, and think it's an act. But that's how me and my brother were raised. Be good, do right, but when you get to church, you let it go. People talk about my dancing...well, where we went to church, that's what people did when the music was pumping. And lemme tell you: that music got goin' ."
"You hold your head up high, like you're gonna fly
You take the bitter `til you find the sweet
When you got that crowd and they're screamin' loud
Leave'em sittin' on the edge of their seat..."
-- "Step That Step"
The seeming contradiction - serious young man, athletic merry prankster, fireball onstage - is part of what allows Miller to move from those ballads that examine life's simple but defining realities with the same ease that he blows up a raver that's basically spontaneous combustion with a guitar solo.
Music wasn't an obvious companion for the boy jock, being the man of a tightly knit family; but what was set ablaze in a largely black grade school through the sounds of the Jackson 5 would reignite through the complex arrangements of the Beatles, the lush harmonies of the Beachboys and whatever he found on his radio dial. For Miller, music sparkled like diamonds across a too dark sky as the 15 ˝ year old hunkered down in his solitary refuge, driving back and forth to his job trick skiing at Disneyworld - a job he lied to get, feigning way more experience than he had - from the teeny rural way town of Apopka.
Even classmate Greg "Hobie" Hubbard was surprised to hear about Miller's musical aspirations. "I was working in the Pizza Hut in Apopka when Mark came in and said that he'd written some songs, then asked if I'd be willing to come over and play piano on them. I was completely unprepared for what it was `cause not only did he write them, which I had no idea about, but he was going to sing them...
"Of course, once I heard him, I never had a doubt that Mark would make it."
Not long after, Miller decided to give up life on the University of Central Florida basketball team - and strike out for Nashville. Hubbard decided to join him. Living on dreams - and the extra large portions Emma English, the cook at the Harding Mall Walgreen's would give her counter help and his buddy - the pair soon found another Florida boy in Smyth, who'd even taught at the University of Miami's prestigious School of Music. A rocker from Michigan named Jim Scholten brought the rumble to the bottom end and original guitarist Bobby Randall filled out the band, originally named Savanah - and renamed for Sawyer Brown Road.
"We figured it was easier to get work if people thought we were a person," Miller concedes with a laugh. "And we wanted to work."
Work they did. Every honky tonk, Holiday Inn, roadhouse and Elks Lodge in the southeast. Five sets a night, 6 nights a week. Turned down by every label in Nashville - the only glimmer was Lyn Shults, working at Capitol, who also spotted Garth Brooks, who advised, "You're different, but you've got something. Different is hard, but when it hits, it sticks."
And so it has. With the longest uninterrupted run as a band currently in country music, Sawyer Brown's songs are an integral thread in the fabric of radio over the past 20 years. They didn't do it on pomp and circumstances, flash and sizzle - in spite of what the singer might've been wearing - but solid music, strong support and remembering to give their fans their best.
"We've been through a lot together," Hubbard admits. "And that really brings you together. In 1986, things were terrible - and to the outside world, it probably looked like it was all gonna fall apart. But we were all so hard-headed in our determination to do what we were here to do, we would NOT be stopped.
"I learned a lot about loyalty and what friendship was all about... we all did."
"Daddy worked hard for his money/
He said some folks don't, but that's okay
They won't know which road to follow
Because an easy street might lead you astray..."
-- "The Dirt Road"
Along the way, they have consistently worked with the best producers and writers Nashville and Muscle Shoals can offer: Grammy-winner Randy Scruggs for 5 albums, acclaimed songwriter Mac MacAnally for 4 more - and embraced topshelf writers from Bill Labounty and Dave Loggins to envelope-pushing rockers Marshall Chapman, Jaime Hartford and Steve Earle. And in terms of special guest help, it's run the gamut - from new wave icon Elvis Costello, who remixed a couple singles to the legendary Jordinaires, who sang on their "My Babys Gone," and sacred steel sensation Robert Randolph, who came straight from Eric Clapton's world tour to help ignite "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand," the lead single from their upcoming Mission Temple Fireworks Stand.
They've survived the departure of Randall. The arrival of acclaimed guitarist Duncan Cameron, who has since departed to follow a second dream of a lifetime: flying for a living as a pilot at Southwest Airlines - and the newest guitarslinger Shayne Hill, who is quick to say "It's strange to look out at those crowds and realize I AM part of one of the truly rocking, but most fun bands making music. I've ALWAYS loved these songs, always - and it's like being the kid who wakes up in the middle of his own dream."
It is its own kind of fairy tale... and if there is such a thing as happily ever after, for the new kid and his four compadres, it's one where the road goes on forever. For Miller, who wrote the zen-est thought perhaps ever in country music - "Is this fate or just a bad day?" - in "Hard To Say," it's about making music. Keeping it vital, fluid, creating songs that spoke from their heart to the heartland and inspired enough of a kick inside his band that Sawyer Brown could rely upon audible set-lists (meaning the next song is called onstage rather than working off a set-in-stone list of songs) to make their shows respond to what the crowd gives them on any given night..
And these songs have helped clarify the phases and stages of life as it came to Miller & Company.
"I took this walk you're walking now
I've been in your shoes
You can't hold back the hands of time
It's just something you've got to do..."
-- "The Walk"
"Our music hits all the people who couldn't maybe verbalize these things," says Hubbard, who co-wrote "The Dirt Road" among others. "You have people tell us all these stories about what these songs mean to them in terms of their life, their families. You realize how much they care about their families, too - and those experiences we all have in common.
"Moments like that, it's just a reminder that I'm not alone out there in the world. Music was my lifeline a lot of times, and it's their's, too."
"Around the time of `The Dirt Road,' `The Walk,' those songs... it was a real change for us, and for me," Miller says. "It was stuff that was happening in my life, and it's serious. You're just dealing with it, trying to have decency and honor - but it can't help but seep into the songs. I was a 30-something, which is a whole different view. When you leave your 20s, you start to look around... there are exceptions, true poets... but the rest of us, it takes time.
"Writing from your head and writing from your heart are very different, writing what you witnessed versus what you thought up. It takes courage... I can say `The Walk' might've been the first true gut-wrenching reality check. I was losing my Grandfather, who'd raised me, and I was adamant it wasn't going on the record because it was too personal to me.
"My brother Frank convinced me to put it on the album. But I said that it couldn't be a single `cause I didn't want it to be judged - because if you laughed at it, I might just have to come down to your office for a little meeting. Of course, it was a single, went to #1... and people tell us stories about the song every day."
Every day. That's the whole point with Sawyer Brown. Doesn't matter where or when or how, they're good to go. Plug in and play, whip up a cloud of dust, leave'em dancing in the aisles.
"When we went out to do `Star Search,' it was surreal... The car meets us at the airport with the sign with our name and everything," the lead singer with the quicksilver smile recalls. "But at the meeting for the performers, people were saying stuff like, `So, where'd you boys leave your tractors?' Just intimidating us...We were hanging back, trying not to look stupid, but even then, we were getting ready to stand up for ourselves and everybody like us.
"Our audience KNOWS that... they know we're all about carrying the flag for them, because we are like they are. They just wanna have a good time - and why not? We do, too. When we're on that stage, for that two hours - or however long they'll let us play - that audience knows we're really glad to be there, and that means something.
"It took me a little while to totally let go onstage - and there was a time when I thought about not being so wild out there - but I saw how much the crowd wanted to do that thing, too. So we do it together; we give America a license to let their hair down, scream a little, dance if they want to.
"And you know, it's funny because over the years, I've come to expect the same thing out of them they expect out of me: EVERYTHING! I want everything they got. I'm goin' for it every night on that stage, goin' in and gettin' it and not leaving anything behind."
Taking no prisoners and laying waste to the country fans who show up has given Sawyer Brown the reputation of being a band the other acts don't want to follow, but it's also built them a fan-base that shows up no matter what. "It's crazy," Miller says. "It's almost like Jimmy Buffett's fans who come not because of the new record or the new song, but because they know they're gonna have fun. We've got kids who grew up listening to their parents' records coming now - and they're totally into it. But that's what you wanna do: maintain what you've created. When it's showing people a good time, well, that's a pretty great thing to have to keep up."