Good Songs And Better Friends Are The Alchemy Of Diamond Rio's Success.
By Dave Irwin
THE SECRET OF success for country band Diamond Rio is simple: "It all boils down to the songs," explains bass player Dana Williams. "It's not about the band or how big you are or how popular. It's about the music. As long as we keep that in our heads, we've got our priorities straight."
The reigning champs of the Country Music Association's "Vocal Group of the Year" category (1992 through 1994, and again in 1997), the six-member band has shown a strength and longevity unseen since their idols, Alabama, dominated the charts in the '80s. It hasn't hurt that their debut single, "Meet In The Middle," has become a symbol of relational cooperation and is even played at weddings. Other hits include "Norma Jean Riley," "That's What I Get For Loving You," and "How Your Love Makes Me Feel."
The group is made up of lead singer Marty Roe, Jimmy Olander (guitar), Gene Johnson (mandolin, vocals), Brian Prout (drums), Dan Truman (keyboards) and Williams (who also sings low harmonies). The band's newly released sixth album, Unbelievable, is the follow-up to last year's Greatest Hits package, and entered the country charts at No. 9.
Unbelievable again features their clear, bluegrass-tinged harmonies on songs written by some of Nashville's top tunesmiths: "You're Gone" was co-written by Jon Vezner and actor/singer Paul Williams; and "I Thought I'd Seen Everything" was penned by R. J. "Mutt" Lange and rocker/golfer Huey Lewis. The group reviews as many as 2,000 songs per album before culling the best to record.
"We listen all year round," Williams notes. "The things we look for are lyrical content, how fast you get to the hook, and overall melody. We try to get a unanimous decisions on songs. When you have six guys with different tastes who agree, that's a big step ahead." He admits, "All of us have written things, and for awhile we talked about recording our own songs. But we realized that by doing that, we'd be cutting ourselves off from the greatest writers in the world, and we just felt that was a mistake. It always goes back to the songs."
This victory of common sense over individual egos is typical of their modus operandi, according to Williams. One of Diamond Rio's trademarks is how well its members get along personally, living up to the sentiments of "Meet In The Middle." Williams notes that when everything you touch turns to gold, artists can easily get lost in the fawning of well-wishers and hangers-on, leading to errors in judgment. "In this band, you always have someone to keep your head on straight...(If you get off track) there's five other guys standing around saying, 'Hey, buddy, you suck,' " he says with a laugh.
Such honest rapport was forged in the band's grueling early years. Roe and Olander had played together since 1984; Truman joined them in 1985. They were so poor, Truman lived with Roe in an apartment funded by Roe's new bride, while Olander was mowing lawns around Nashville during the day. The lineup was completed in 1989 when Williams joined, at which time the band changed its name to Diamond Rio. At the time, they only had one gig booked on their calendar. That quickly changed when they were signed to Arista Records in 1990. By the following year, their futures seemed more secure, and in fact the hits have continued ever since.
Williams offers thumbnail descriptions of his co-workers: "Marty is fearless; he's a very warm-hearted, opinionated person, but once you get to know him, he's a pussycat. Jimmy's so motivated, when he gets into something, he goes all the way. Gene is a quiet dude, but when he says something, it's all thought out. Dan is a big-time family man. Brian is our social guy--he loves going to all the events and the parties. And me, I'm just a fun guy. I try to find the humor in things."
Earlier this year, Diamond Rio achieved country music's most permanent honor when they were inducted as the 71st members of the Grand Ole Opry. They were also the first group invited to join the Opry in 14 years. The honor was a family matter for Williams. His uncles--Bobby and Sonny Osborne--were inducted in 1964 as the famous bluegrass duo, the Osborne Brothers. "The Opry is full of acts I love," Williams says. "I'd even worked for some of them over the years. I'll tell you, that's country music right there."
Williams is proud the band has thrived so well and for so long. "We started this thing saying, 'We want longevity. We're not in this for a quick hit and get out. We want to be here in 15 or 20 years.' We came out of the chute with a number-one record, and we've been hard at it ever since."
Diamond Rio performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 27, at the New West, 4385 W. Ina Road. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 day of the show, and are available at the New West and Dillard's box offices, or by calling 1-800-638-4253.
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