“There were five of us thinking that we can
This is the life and times of a travelin’ band…”
Those words end the first verse of the title track to Sawyer Brown’s CD “Travelin’ Band.” The life and times of a traveling band—if ever there were a band who is well qualified to paint a picture of what it means to be a travelin’ band, it’s Sawyer Brown. Founded in 1981, the band celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, having played more than 4000 shows over the course of those 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,” says lead singer Mark Miller when asked for some of the secrets to the band’s longevity. “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.” He then adds with a laugh, “OK, guys from the neighborhood who made some questionable clothing choices in the 80s—but it was the 80s, after all.”
From the looks of the band’s three-decade and still going career, they seem to be guys from everybody’s neighborhood. Keyboard player Gregg “Hobie” Hubbard adds, “It’s always humbling when someone comes up after a show and tells us that they hear themselves or their family in our music. 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.”
One story at a time—that is certainly the way that the life and times of this travelin’ band unfolds. “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 says. “It seems to me that it’s really the small moments in life that are the big ones, anyway.” And capture those moments the band has. From the tentative moments of transition that underscore Miller’s evocative ballad “The Walk” to the moment that a guy realizes he just might have found the right girl in the band’s energetic signature song “Some Girls Do,” the band consistently manages to bring to life those moments that all to often slip by unnoticed—unnoticed, that is, until a song sings our life back to us.
Sawyer Brown has been singing our life back to us now over the course of twenty-three albums, and the Miller-produced “Travelin’ Band” continues that rich 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 says. “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.” Hubbard adds, “That’s one of the great things about music—the connection it makes. 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.”
And one listen through “Travelin’ Band” and you can see that every song indeed matters to the band. The CD opens with the driving “Ain’t Goin’ Out That Way,” a song that sings of the desire and determination to not give up, to not settle for less, that has been at the core of the band’s work ethic: “Some people just live to die and that’s OK/ But I ain’t goin’ out that way.” In Sawyer Brown’s hands, never-giving-up has never felt so good.
And speaking of feeling good, the CD’s lead-off single “Smokin’ Hot Wife” has feel-good written all over it. “People have asked me where that song came from,” Miller says, “and I just have to smile and think about my wife. I’ve said that the guy talking in ‘Smokin’ Hot Wife’ is the same guy that’s in ‘Some Girls Do’—only that girl who had his number in ‘Some Girls Do’ is now wearing his wedding ring.” Pausing for a moment, Miller adds with a laugh, “And who am I kidding—I am that guy! They say all men marry up—well, I married way up.”
The party keeps going with the Jeffrey Steele penned tune, “New Set of Tires.” “We knew that song was a Sawyer Brown song from the first time we heard it,” says bass player Jim Scholten, whose bass line drives the song. “That groove just won’t quit—plus, how can you not love a song that talks about Perelli Tires and Dale, Jr.?”
The gospel-flavored “Come Along” is classic Sawyer Brown heightened by the added vocal harmonies of Southern gospel favorites Ernie Haas and Signature Sound—and the combination provides one of the album’s highlights. “When we performed on the Dove Awards a couple of years ago, we were blown away by Ernie and Signature Sound,” Miller says. “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!’” Hubbard is in total agreement. “It’s true—I’m Presbyterian, and I still couldn’t sit still while they were singing!”
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. The song opens with “I’m up on a highwire/ in the middle this time/ I hope somewhere both ends of this rope are tied…” As Hubbard says, “It’s about taking those chances that we all take in relationships—chances that we hope turn out for the best.” Miller adds, “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.”
“We go with our gut when it comes to our music,” Miller goes on to say. “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.” Clearly that musical instinct that has guided them from the beginning is right on the money. The band has gold and platinum albums, with an impressive discography that includes dozens of hits, among them “Some Girls Do,” “The Dirt Road,” “The Walk,” “Thank God for You,” “The Boys and Me,” “Step That Step,” and “Drive Me Wild.” And it’s worth noting that all of those titles just mentioned were written or co-written by Miller.
The band has also put the Sawyer Brown stamp on a handful of well-chosen—and now well-loved—covers over the years, including the non-stop drive (no pun intended) of hits “The Race Is On” and “Six Days on the Road.” The band adds to this list its remake of Paul Davis’s 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 says. “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.” One listen to Miller’s voice wrapping around Davis’s timeless melody and the harmonies of Hubbard and guitarist/background vocalist Shayne Hill lifting the chorus and it’s safe to say that the band both does justice to the original and makes the song their own.
Perhaps no song is more their own than the poignantly autobiographical title ballad, “Travelin’ Band,” a standout track penned by Miller that tells the band’s story—and more importantly tells the heart of the band—in song. From playing countless sets in clubs prior to Star Search to touring with Kenny Rogers; from anonymity to familiarity; from mullets to the new millennium—“Travelin’ Band” manages to encapsulate the band’s story, or at least the story thus far, in a song. Hubbard remembers the first time he heard the song: “I sat there speechless when Mark played me the song on his acoustic [guitar]. Every single moment in that song rang true, took me back—every moment. All I could do was sit there and nod my head.” He goes on to say, “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. As Mark Miller humbly says, “We’re all this together—all of us. 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.” It is a thank-you that at this point literally hundreds of thousands of cheering fans have experienced not only on record, but at the band’s legendary live shows as well. 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. “That’s one thing that has never changed,” says drummer Joe Smyth. “The business part of the music business may be changing by the minute, but playing live is still about the same thing it’s always been about: connecting to the audience right there in the moment.”
Sawyer Brown is about connection. In fact, it’s likely safe to say that connection continues to be the driving force of the band. As note connects to note, as singer connects to listener, as each mile of road connects to the one that follows it, the band senses—and forges—those connections every time they record and every time they hit the stage. “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 says. “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.”
Wherever that may be, the lyrics to “Travelin’ Band” will come to life—
And now I’d like to take this time to thank you
And though it’s been a long and winding road
I count my blessings when I see your faces
And I look down at this guitar in my hand
And I take my place
On the stage
In a travelin’ band.
I’m in a travelin’ band.