When Sawyer Brown scored their first No. 1 hit, "Step That Step," in 1985, they did not appear to be a country band built
They were youthful and trendy. Front man Mark Miller was an energetic dancer, the band wore bright tennis shoes and garish
1980s fashions, and the "rock" in their country-rock sound was derided as bubblegum. To top it off, they got an early career
boost by winning "Star Search," the Ed McMahon-hosted talent contest.
Yet here Sawyer Brown is, 20 years after their founding, releasing their 18th album, "Can You Hear Me Now," on Tuesday
(June 11). They'll perform about a hundred concerts this year.
The key to their longevity has been hard work. Sawyer Brown played 315 shows a year early on, and their concert-going fan
base is so solid that critical reaction doesn't seem to matter.
Good thing for them. A typical review, this one in Entertainment Weekly of their 1991 album "Buick," called Sawyer Brown's
music "flaccid country rock."
"This is the epitome of ersatz country: never remarkable, never inspired, and with any luck at all never to be heard from
again," wrote critic Alanna Nash, who graded the album an "F" for the magazine.
Sawyer Brown keyboard player Gregg "Hobie" Hubbard says he doesn't care about such assessments.
"We're the cockroach," he says. "They can't kill us.
"We'll hide in your ... catnip. We're not going away because somebody decided we're not their cup of tea. Because every
night, I see that we are somebody's cup of tea."
Miller leans back, scratches his chin, and jokingly suggests renaming the new album "Cockroach."
He can afford to be cocky, sitting on his sprawling Dirt Road Farm south of Nashville. On the grounds are tennis and basketball
courts, homes for his own family and his parents, a first-class recording studio and more.
"If we're going to be compared to anybody, we want to be compared to the (Rolling) Stones," Miller says. "We don't feel
that there's any band on the planet better than us."
On the new album, Sawyer Brown tries to show their range. The jaunty "I Need a Girlfriend" is prototypical lightweight
Sawyer Brown and likely to score radio airplay. It also sounds slightly ridiculous sung by a 43-year-old man. On the other
hand, the band does a credible version of "Livin' in a Hard Hard World" by underground Nashville singer-songwriter Jamie Hartford.
"That's how hard we work at finding songs," Miller says. "We found it on his CD that was given to us by a kid that I'm
producing that is in an alternative rock band."
Sawyer Brown comprised of Miller, Hubbard, bassist Jim Scholten, drummer Joe Smyth and guitarist Duncan Cameron (who replaced
Bobby Randall in 1991) formed in 1982. Originally called Savannah, they switched their name to Sawyer Brown after a road in
At a time when groups were unusual in country music, they thought the name might get them airplay by fooling radio programers
into thinking they were a solo act.
They won $100,000 on "Star Search" in 1984, but spurned an offer for their own television show.
"They wanted us to sort of be the new Monkees," Hubbard says. "It was turning down something that was a guarantee this
will happen and we will give you money."
But Miller said none of the band members aspired to be TV stars and they worried they would lose musical credibility.
Instead, they returned to Nashville and scored a deal with Curb Records, still their record company today. They pumped
out danceable hits like "Betty's Bein' Bad" and "Out Goin' Cattin'" until losing steam at radio at the start of the 1990s.
Instead of fading away, they reinvented themselves with "The Walk," a tearjerker ballad written by Miller about fathers and
"It wasn't a conscious decision for our careers," Hubbard said. "It was more that we were growing up and maturing. ...
There's that evolution that you go through as a human being, and that just begins to creep into the music."
Now that they've established that the critics won't run them off, the band is aware of other threats age and prosperity.
"You see this weight room next door?" Miller said. "There are days when I don't want to come out here and lift weights,
but we know that's part of the stamina to go out for a two-hour show. Every guy in the band works out."
Hubbard adds: "And we still do have that youth appeal, in the right light."