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Sawyer Brown keeps wantin' it all

By Robert Loy, November 1995

Imagine it's 1985. Imagine you're a psychic with a cracked and cloudy crystal ball. This device tells you that of the country acts currently making top 10 records, only four will be doing so 10 years hence.

You could probably guess that Reba McEntire, George Strait and Alabama would still be around. Their staying power was evident even then.

But can you imagine how your fellow fortune tellers would have scorned and ridiculed you had you predicted that Sawyer Brown would be among that elite company?

"Sawyer Brown?" they'd have said. "You must be kidding. You mean those guys that jump around all over the stage with the pink tennis shoes. The guys from Star Search? The country Monkees? Please, they've got flash-in-the-pan written all over them."

Well, it's 1995, and not only has Sawyer Brown survived - they've thrived. They're still playing before sell-out crowds, still selling records by the ton, still winning awards for their innovative videos, and now they're even gathering critical acclaim for their songs of social awareness.

The secret of Sawyer Brown's staying power is really not that hard to understand, according to Joe Smyth, the band's drummer.

"I think, number one, we just refused to go away," he said, with a laugh. "That's a joke, but it's not a joke. We've always had people saying we shouldn't be here, doing what we're doing, but we just didn't listen to any of that. I think we've had to tread water at times, that consolidation period in your career, where first you're the new kid and all eyes are focused, and then you're left to sink or swim as newer people come into the business.

"We just kept working hard, doing as many shows as humanly possible," he said. "We take our music very seriously and ourselves not seriously at all."

You can't read about Sawyer Brown or talk to any of its members without coming across the words "blue collar" and "working class."

"We're all from middle class working families," Smyth said. "My father worked in a paper mill. My mother was a teacher. Our families worked hard for what they got. Another thing about us is we're all from small towns, which gives you a different perspective than growing up in New York or Chicago. Even now, all of us live in smaller communities around Nashville."

The band consists of lead vocalist Mark Miller, bassist Jim Scholten, guitarist Duncan Cameron, keyboardist Gregg Hubbard and Smyth.

Smyth's small town working class roots extend all the way to New England.

"I was born in western Maine and lived there til I was 18," he said. " I went to college in Boston for a couple of years, then to Miami. I wasn't really into country music growing up. I was into just about everything else. I used to play with an orchestra, jazz groups, top 40 groups, just about everything you can imagine. Country was always around though, since my parents listened to it. So it was always there in the back of my mind.

"I still have family in Maine. My parents, my grandmother, my sister and her husband all live in the Portland area," he said. "So, I try to get back there as often as I can."

Given Sawyer Brown's schedule, that may not be too often.

"We're not on the road as much as we used to be back in the old days," he said. "But we still do 200 shows a year, as much or more than anybody else. We try to break it up so that we can be home more often, even if it's only for a day or two.

"We've all got families now," he said. "I've got a son, 10 years old, and a daughter, 6. When they're real little, their concept of time is kind of like a dog's. They know you're gone, but they don't know how long; it could have been five minutes, could have been a month. But when they get older, it gets harder. They've got more going on in their lives and they want you there. It's tough missing out on Little League games and things that they'll only do once."

Winning "Star Search"in 1983 - two years after the band formed in Nashville - is something the guys of Sawyer Brown did only once, although their critics have never let them forget it.

"We'd been on the road for five weeks solid, doing five sets a night," he said. "You really needed to play eight nights a week in those days to make any money at all. We didn't have a manager, we had a booking agent. When he sent us out to do this video, we'd never heard of "Star Search." We thought it was something we would use to get more club work. We got there, and we were surrounded by baton twirlers in spangly outfits, a ventriloquist, and we just looked at each other and said: 'Oh, no, we've wasted our one day off.' Our first impression was anger about wasting our time.

"They had one hand-held black-and-white video camera," he said. "We just blew the whole thing off, jumping around, knocking over amplifiers. If that piece of videotape ever got out, I don't know what would happen."

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