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SAWYER BROWN   Country Music Band

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“Every so often, we go through a re-inventing period,” says Sawyer Brown’s Mark Miller, “and this was one of them. Just vocal-wise, we did things on this album that we’ve never done before.”

Indeed, Drive Me Wild boasts some of the richest, smoothest and most animating harmonies of Sawyer’s Brown’s long and vibrant career. From the whoop-and-holler joyfulness of “All Wound Up” and the title cut to the spirit-probing intensity of “Soul Searchin'” and “It All Comes Down To Love,” this newest collection resounds with emotional truth. The band’s sixteenth album, Drive Me Wild was co-produced by band founder and lead-singer Miller and award-winning songwriter Mac McAnally.

“With us, a re-invention is an evolution,” Miller explains. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’ve done this. Now we want to go somewhere else.’ I’ve always thought we could be more of a vocal band than we’ve been in the past. We’d always had these great grooves, I felt, but sometimes we didn’t spend the time on vocals. Hobie [keyboardist Gregg Hubbard] and Duncan [Cameron, lead guitarist] are such incredible singers, and I didn’t think we’d ever maxed them out. I wanted to do that. It’s been a case of looking at ourselves and saying, ‘We can do more. We can be better. We still have things to say, and we want you to hear it.'”

Since making its chart debut in 1984 with “Leona,” Sawyer Brown has always had something to say-and the incandescent showmanship to seize everyone’s attention. Although the band made its breakthrough with such pulsating party songs as “Step That Step” and “Betty’s Bein’ Bad,” it endeared itself to hard-core country audiences with its more somber and thought-provoking fare-songs like “Used To Blue,” “This Missin’ You Heart Of Mine,” “The Walk,” “The Dirt Road,” “All These Years” and “Cafe On The Corner,” all of which went Top 5 or higher.

Miller insists that the group always opts for substance over flash. “We always try to cut the very best songs,” he maintains. “We don’t try to put an equation [of song types] on it.” High quality can come in different guises, he points out: “Sometimes, if a song just feels so good that you don’t have to think about it, then I don’t pay much attention to the lyrics. But sometimes the melody and the feel are only background to what the lyrics say. If that’s the case, I want those lyrics to really mean something and have an impact.”

In recent years, Sawyer Brown has created much of its own material. But it’s never been a closed shop. “All of our albums begin with our own songs,” Miller says. “Then we say, ‘Can the outside material [submitted to us] beat what we already have?’ Most of the time, the first 10 or 12 songs we record will be the ones that we have written. Then we start bumping our own stuff with songs that we think are better or more interesting.”

To arrive at the ll selections that make up Drive Me Wild, the band recorded more than 30 songs-a common occurrence, Miller notes. Only five of Sawyer Brown’s own compositions made the final cut. “There were several times we thought the album was finished, and it wasn’t,” Miller observes. “On this album, I would have loved to have had maybe a couple of more ballads. But we always let the songs decide. Then we just pick 10 or 11 so people will hear the best of what we can do.” The album was recorded in Muscle Shoals and Nashville over a period of a year and a half.

Remarkably stable in a notoriously unstable business, the band has lost and added only one member in its more than 15 years of recording and touring. Besides Miller, Hubbard and Cameron, the band is made up of Joe Smyth on drums and Jim Scholten on bass. Within its first year of performing, Sawyer Brown won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award. It has since earned Top Vocal Group honors from the Academy Of Country Music, as well as six consecutive TNN/Music City News Top Vocal Band prizes.

Sawyer Brown was one of the first country acts to use music videos to full advantage. From the start, its videos were built around concepts, rather than on straight performances. The videos also involved famous guest stars, among them the comedian Gallagher and wiseguy weatherman Willard Scott. But more than anything else, the videos showcased Mark Miller’s bounding and boundless stage energy and demonstrated that the other members were having great fun playing together.

“Some of the early videos I did not enjoy,” Miller confesses. “When you first start doing videos, you don’t know what all it takes and what all goes into it. And there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. On ‘The Walk’ video-which was 21 videos ago-we hooked up with [director] Mike Salomon, and he’s done every one of ours since. He makes it absolutely painless for us. He pretty much comes up with the concept. Our treatment sheet will just say, ‘Be here at 12 o’clock, and don’t worry-you’ll look cool.’ I’m basically hands-off when it comes to the videos.”

A devout Christian, Miller says he does take care to ensure that the band’s videos don’t celebrate or endorse opposing values. “Quite honestly, my kids don’t want to see me hugging or kissing anyone but their mama, and I’m not going to do that. If there are girls in the video who might insinuate something, I’m not too keen on that either.” In spite of these strictures, many of Sawyer Brown’s videos are dramatic powerhouses. “The Walk” chronicled the relentless march of aging. “Caf? on the Corner” focused on the agony of people dispossessed and out of work. “All These Years” examined without sentimentality a marriage crumbling into desperation and despair. More recently, with “The Other Side,” the band used a Civil War scenario to illustrate that blood is thicker than politics. Four of Sawyer Brown’s videos-including the rollicking “Some Girls Do” and “Six Days On The Road”-have earned CMT Video Of The Year awards.

The difference between his manic stage performances and the relative serenity of his private life is a source of wry amusement for Miller. But he insists there’s no deception involved. “I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and that’s just the way we do music. We had drums, horns, guitars. There was moving to the music. I had never really thought that much about it until people started talking to us. They’d say things like, ‘Where are you guys going to party tonight?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’m going back on the bus and watch the sports channels.’ There’s not a lot I can do about [the misperception] until I get into a situation where I can profess what I am. I’ve had people come up and say, ‘I thought you’d be the wildest thing on the planet’ and in their mind they’re probably thinking, ‘This guy’s pitiful. He doesn’t even have a life.’ But that’s OK. I do have a life. But it’s pretty simple beyond the stage.”

Even backstage it’s pretty simple. “We don’t have a big crew or a big entourage,” says Miller. “We don’t even have a road manager. We kind of know where we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do, and we just do it. We’ve had TV crews come out with us, and they’d want to do a documentary on us. Well, we’ve got bookshelves on our bus. All the guys read, and I’ve got my satellite dish so I can watch all the sports programs. So the TV people would say, ‘Well, go ahead and do what you guys normally do,’ and we’d sit there and look at each other. We couldn’t even make stuff up.”

This spartan road regimen served the band especially well when it was racking up an “absolutely insane” 250 dates a year. Lately, the guys have whittled their annual schedule to around 120 shows. Miller spends most of his days off running his cattle farm and playing basketball. In 1996, the 5′ 9″ dynamo joined the Fort Wayne Fury, playing, when his schedule allowed, for a princely $500 a week. While he didn’t suit-up this past year, he says he’s still on the team. “They called and wanted me to come back and play. Maybe I can catch the end of the season. In the meantime, I’ve been playing here in Nashville in a couple of really good leagues with college kids.”

The band continues to be generous in its support of charities. “We’re really involved with St. Jude [Children’s Hospital],” Miller says. “We do everything we can that they need us to do. I have a group of [celebrity] basketball guys that I do benefits with for smaller schools to help them raise money for their athletic programs.”

Sawyer Brown’s incessant touring and crowd-pleasing music have gained the band one of the largest and most loyal followings in country music. “We have an incredible fan club,” Miller says. “My mom is actually the president of it. I don’t even know how many members there are–but it’s a lot. We have a website [], and every year at Fan Fair we have a breakfast for our members. We also have a deal that when you join the fan club, you get a backstage pass to meet the band at one of our shows.”

By now, Miller says, the fans have come to accept his smoothly shaved head in place of the hats and caps he used to wear to conceal his thinning locks. “Sometimes you run out of options,” he laughs. “With the hair, I kept cutting it shorter and shorter, and I didn’t like wearing hats anymore. My wife said, ‘You’ve been wanting to shave it, so just shave it and see what it looks like.’ And I said, ‘What if I look like Charles Barkley? In my mind, I want to look like Michael Jordan. But what if I look like an axe murderer?’ But I did it, and she liked it. Now I keep it zipped down. The fans are used to it. I think it was a little bit of a shock at first. The funny thing is that all the kids think it’s cool.” Miller expects Drive Me Wild to yield five or six singles and for the band to tour in support of the album for the next two years.

Aside from performing, farming and shooting baskets, Miller intends to spend more time writing songs and producing records. “There are a couple of acts I’m working with now,” he says. “I just enjoy the music so much, and that seems to be where my gifts are. I always want to have time and energy for that.”

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