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Sawyer Brown: 20 Years After Winning CMA Horizon Award, is Still Thriving


Sawyer Brown

Sawyer Brown

Used with permission of CMA Closeup News Service
By j. poet

In these days of instant celebrity, an artist can go from an unknown amateur to a superstar, seemingly overnight. So it's odd to remember back in 1984, when hard-working, experienced band Sawyer Brown won first place on "Star Search," only to find that respect didn't seem to come along with the honor. The band had already logged many miles backing singer Don King, and lead singer Mark Miller's song "Over Under and Around" had been cut by MCA Nashville recording artist Reba McEntire.

Still, Sawyer Brown's flashy clothing and Miller's energy put some people off. "We were all young and unmarried," Miller said. "Before 'Star Search' we'd been doing five or six sets a night, six nights a week for about three years. We were a tight band, but it was a different time. We all grew up with Jimi Hendrix and Elvis and liked their high energy and wild outfits. For us, the rhinestones and jumpsuits translated into gold lamae and striped pants. We brought something less traditional to the party, and the critics and some of the hard-core Country enthusiasts didn't know what to make of it. I can't comment on our 'bad taste;' but when I look at some of those old photos, I think 'My gosh, what were we thinking?' But in our minds we looked like rock stars."

Despite winning the CMA Horizon Award in 1985 and a No. 1 hit with "Step by Step," radio was slow to warm up to the band. Undaunted, Sawyer Brown kept burning down the house at concert halls and clubs across the country. "The year after 'Star Search' we did 315 dates in 315 cities," Miller said "It was crazy, but the door had been opened for us and by golly we were going to put in the time to lay down the foundation."

More than 20 years later, Sawyer Brown is still going strong, with a loyal following inspiring writers to dub them "The Grateful Dead of Country." "We do see the same fans at a lot of shows," Miller said. "All along it has been the fans that fueled us. They absolutely overshadowed any criticism we were getting. They come out every night and even in the last three and a half years, with no new record, the crowds were getting bigger and the fans were getting younger. Kids that first saw us with their parents are coming back with their friends. They tell us 'You're the only band that me and my parents both like.' We're loud and we rock and we give them every ounce we have when we're on stage, but it's still safe."

Drummer Joe Smyth said that the band's energy "is what keeps fans coming back, and their energy is part of what keeps us rocking so hard. 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."

Diversity is one of Sawyer Brown's strengths. They play an almost metallic brand of rock, hard-core honky tonk, truck driver songs and serious ballads. They're also one of the few bands to acknowledge that just like their fans, they're growing older.

"We set out to be a Country rock band, and since everyone in the band has diverse musical influences we went wherever the music wanted to take us," Miller said. "We make a conscious effort not to repeat ourselves. 'Some Girls Do' was so big it was tempting to write a sequel, but you've got to keep moving and keep living and hope that the same life that brought 'Some Girls' will bring the next one.

"As far as maturing as a writer and a performer, you have more to say at 35 than you do at 25. Artistically, it's like going from finger paint to oils; as we got more serious, people started taking us seriously as artists. There's no time in your life when you don't enjoy a good joke or a song that's sad enough to make you cry. I love songs that can break me down and songs that make me speed up when I'm driving and get me to dancing in the car. It's all part of our human emotions, and artists should be free to go to both places."

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