- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — When Sawyer Brown scored its first No. 1 hit, "Step That Step," in 1985, it did not appear to be a country band built to last.

The musicians were youthful and trendy. Frontman Mark Miller was an energetic dancer, the band members wore bright tennis shoes and garish 1980s fashions, and the "rock" in their country-rock sound was derided as bubble gum. 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 its founding, releasing its 18th album, "Can You Hear Me Now," on Tuesday. The band will perform about 100 concerts this year.

The key to its longevity has been hard work. Sawyer Brown played 315 shows a year early on, and its concert-going fan base is so solid that critical reaction doesn't seem to matter.

Good thing. A typical review, this one in Entertainment Weekly of the 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."

Mr. 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, Tenn. 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," Mr. 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 its 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," Mr. 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 comprising Mr. Miller, Mr. Hubbard, bassist Jim Scholten, drummer Joe Smyth and guitarist Duncan Cameron (who replaced Bobby Randall in 1991) formed in 1982. Originally called Savannah, the group switched its name to Sawyer Brown after a road in west Nashville.

At a time when groups were unusual in country music, the band mates 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," Mr. Hubbard says. "It was turning down something that was a guarantee 'This will happen, and we will give you money.'"

However, Mr. Miller says none of the band members aspired to be TV stars, and they worried that they would lose musical credibility.

Instead, they returned to Nashville and scored a deal with Curb Records, still their record company. They pumped out such danceable hits as "Betty's Bein' Bad" and "Out Goin' Cattin'" until they lost steam on radio at the start of the 1990s. Instead of fading away, they reinvented themselves with "The Walk," a tear-jerker ballad written by Mr. Miller about fathers and sons.

"It wasn't a conscious decision for our careers," Mr. Hubbard says. "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 have established that the critics won't run them off, they are aware of other threats age and prosperity.

"You see this weight room next door?" Mr. Miller asks. "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."

Mr. Hubbard adds: "And we still do have that youth appeal, in the right light."


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