By Shane Riggs
Managing Editor, Allegany Magazine
Carrie Underwood was in her terrible twos and Kelly Clarkson had just turned three years old when an event happened on American television that would pave the way to their eventual superstardom in the music industry.
The year was 1985. This was 14 years before Simon Cowell “invented the genre” of a television talent show with the potential of a record deal attached. This was pre-American Idol. Indeed, the grand daddy of talent game shows – the variety show hosted by Ed McMahon that launched children like America’s Got Talent and The Voice was a little program called Star Search.
And the very first winners on the very first season of that show that would open the eyes not only to record but TV executives was a band of friends from a small town in Tennessee, a band that took its name from a street sign outside a building where they used to meet to rehearse.
Thirty years ago, television had nothing like Star Search – a show where amateur bands, soloists and comedians competed and moved on based on viewing audience votes. Week after week, Sawyer Brown advanced until they won the competition. And 30 years ago, country music had nothing like Sawyer Brown.
“The funny thing about that is, we only auditioned for that show to get a videotape,” says Gregg “Hobie” Hubbard, one of three original members of Sawyer Brown and the band’s keyboardist. “Everyone gets on Youtube now but in the 80s to get a videotape of your performance, you still had to show up on television.”
However, while the band found it had a following and a connection with an audience that “stuck with them” week after week in livingrooms, they still did not have a record contract. Their grand prize was $100,000 and a “chance to get noticed by record companies.”
“Even after we won, we knew we had to keep working and keep getting noticed,” Hobie tells Allegany Magazine from his home outside Nashville. “The show was a door that had opened but we still had to walk through and prove ourselves. A lot of record companies were really skeptical at that time of
a band that won a talent show on television. They were very suspect of us.”
To prove themselves worthy, Sawyer Brown used their national exposure to launch a 300 date tour for the next year. They appeared at nearly every county fair and honky tonk and medium venue in the nation.
“I don’t know how we did that to be honest,” Hobie recalls. “I don’t know how we did that many shows and maintained our sanity. Those shows back then were like our college. We were in our 20s too so I suppose there is a benefit of youth.”
Today, the band does about 100 tour dates a year – one of those dates will bring them to the Garrett County Fair in McHenry and Deep Creek Lake on Saturday, July 30.
“What’s funny is that on any given day, people will still mention those early days of our hits – 85, 86 and 87...and they will even mention watching us on Star Search,” Hobie says. “It’s amazing that connection we made and still have with music fans. It continues to be about that connection.”
That “connection” also included enough number one country music hits to produce two greatest hits packages. And the band continues to record new music. They have released a new album at least every two to three years for the last 30 years.
Sawyer Brown arrived on the country music scene at a time when the genre was packed with what was considered “outlaw” or traditional country.
The old joke in the industry was “what do you get when you play a country record backwards? You get your car back, your wife back and your dog back.” But Sawyer Brown broke that mold with high energy and even fun songs – tunes that gave a wink and a smile to southern lifestyles. Their lyrics included “Betty’s out being bad tonight, Betty and her boyfriend had a big fight” and “Some girls don’t like boys like me... oh, but some girls do.” They still may be the only music act to wax poetic about pink fur dice.
“I remember appearing on shows like Hee Haw and on the Nashville Network back then,” says Hobie. “Those were great shows to do. I remember performing on Nashville Now with (host and country radio personality) Ralph Emory, and when we finished our number, Ralph just stared. He didn’t know what to make of us. It was like "okay, what the heck was that?"
And yet, even in the beginnings of their stardom – as the singles got played and the offers poured in, Sawyer Brown remained a band with a common goal – longevity. This would not be a “one hit wonder band.”
“When we first started, we looked at groups like the Charlie Daniels Band and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and we wanted that for ourselves,” says Hobie. “And besides, Charlie Daniels is just a great human being. We love him to death. I hope Sawyer Brown lasts as long as Charlie Daniels...and as long as Del McCoury, who I know has a festival in your area. I hope we do this for as long as it’s fun and as long as we can. You look at Mellencamp, or Springsteen or McCartney. Those guys are no longer in their 20s and they still have the momentum. They still go out there with their A-Game.”
Still on their own A-Game, the boys of Sawyer Brown were indeed part of a movement in the mid-80s that lured a new generation to country music. Other acts at that time included long established veterans like George Jones and Loretta Lynn. The newest kids on the block then were Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, and even they were considered “traditional.” The powerhouse that would be Garth Brooks was still five years away.
“We were hard headed. We wanted to do the music that we wanted to do,” Hobie remembers. “George Strait is George Strait. We got criticized for being pop country or bubblegum country and for even not wearing cowboy hats and for running around on stage.”
Yet Sawyer Brown continued to have hit after radio hit, and suddenly a new audience was showing up at their concerts – people in their late teens and 20s. The future of country music was – for the moment – safe.
The one element of the music business that has proved constant over the last three decades – at least for Sawyer Brown – has been the live shows.
“The live performance is where it’s at and where it’s always been,” says Hobie. “There is nothing like doing a live show. It’s hard for me to believe that people actually look forward to coming to see us the way I look forward to seeing some of my favorite bands. This summer is going to be a lot of fun for us. It’s going to be a great time. We are definitely going to be busy and we are looking forward to the Garrett County Fair. Hope to see you there.”