Walkin’ Away: What Happened To Diamond Rio?

Image From Sounds Like Nashville

People talk about the late 1980s and 1990s in country music for a lot of reasons, but one of the more interesting aspects of the era is the proliferation of bands in a genre that traditionally featured solo artists. Spurred on by the success of Alabama, Music Row started scouring the country for the next big country band. The result was that the neotraditional sound was pushed by a large number of groups: My Alabama deep dive lists “Highway 101, Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown…Shenandoah…The Kentucky Headhunters, The Mavericks, Little Texas, Diamond Rio, Confederate Railroad, and eventually Lonestar and The Dixie Chicks,” just to name a few. (We could also bring up Ricochet, Blackhawk, Yankee Grey, SHeDAISY, etc.) While none of them reached the heights or achieved the longevity of Alabama, they were generally able to carve out successful niches of their own. If I had to pick out two of these acts who earned the most plaudits in a post-Alabama world, it would be Lonestar (who we covered back in December) and Diamond Rio, whose fadeout in the mid 2000s left Sam wondering what had happened:

Admittedly, my initial thought about this deep dive was that there wouldn’t be much to say: Diamond Rio had arrived on the scene a few years before Lonestar, and Lonestar’s massive success around the turn of the millennium had likely just shoved Diamond Rio (and everyone else) off to the side. This theory, however, was quickly disproved:

  • Lonestar didn’t actually last that much longer than Diamond Rio: Lonestar’s last #1 (“Mr. Mom”) came in 2004, while Diamond Rio’s last one (“I Believe”) came in 2002.
  • As demonstrated by “I Believe,” “You’re Gone,” and especially “One More Day,” Diamond Rio could play the “big emotional ballad” card just as well as Lonestar could.

Diamond Rio also differed from Lonestar in one major category: Lineup stability. While Lonestar’s tenure was defined by the addition and loss of key players, Diamond Rio has had the same lineup since before Taylor Swift was born (their newest member, Dana Williams, joined the band in early 1989). The personnel behind the booth were not quite as static, but the producer transitions were surprisingly gradual and smooth:

  • Diamond Rio, Close To The Edge: Tim DuBois and Monty Powell
  • Love A Little Stronger: DuBois, Powell, and Mike Clute
  • IV: DuBois, Powell, Clute, and Diamond Rio
  • Ever Since: Clute and Diamond Rio (although it appears “I Made It” is credited only to Clute and DR guitarist Jimmy Olander)

So if Lonestar and individual egos didn’t break up this band, what finally knocked this group off of their pedestal? After sifting through the data, the story that emerges is surprisingly similar to that of The Band Perry: The group broke through with a distinct and consistent sound, and when they decided they wanted to do something different, the label and the radio didn’t play along, and the group eventually traded its career for creative freedom.

The Rise

Much like The Band Perry, Diamond Rio hit the ground running with its debut single “Meet In The Middle,” which reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart (a feat that would take six years for the group to duplicate) and remains arguably their signature song. The song still holds up today, but what’s most striking in how the group’s sound broke from genre orthodoxy at the time: In the middle of the fiddle-and-steel neotraditional movement, Diamond Rio’s production eschewed both instruments in favor of Gene Johnson’s mandolin, Dan Truman’s keyboard, and Olander’s memorable “Taxicaster” electric guitar, not to mention the incredible harmony vocals of Johnson, Williams, and lead singer Marty Roe. (Brian Prout rounds out the group on the drums.) They also broke from tradition in a less-noticeable (but more-surprising) way, one I’d never noticed until I began researching this piece: In a genre marinated in alcohol, the group never released a drinking song as a single. (In contrast, Lonestar’s debut single was “Tequila Talkin’.”)

While Diamond Rio rarely reached the peak of the charts during the 1990s, the group was a consistent presence in the Top Ten during this time, and never wavered from their classic sound…until 1998’s Unbelievable, where “You’re Gone” previewed the piano-driven power ballad sound that was about to launch Lonestar into the stratosphere, and “I Know How The River Feels” added a string section to the group’s usual lineup. This was the first album without DuBois and Powell in the booth, so perhaps this was the first shot being fired in the battle over creative freedom that was about to erupt.

The Fall

The first real sign of trouble appeared with Diamond Rio’s sixth studio album, which was supposed to be released in 2000 and named after its leadoff single “Stuff.” The song was a lighthearted critique of America’s consumer culture and our tendency to order and hoard things we don’t need (given its references to online shopping, the song feels a bit ahead of its time today, given that Amazon was not that far removed from its bookstore roots at the time), but the radio never warmed to it, and it wound up peaking at #36 and pushing the album release back nearly a year. The project was saved, however, when the album’s second single “One More Day” exploded to become the group’s third #1 county single, hit #6 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and even cracked the Top Thirty on the Hot 100. (“Meet In The Middle” might be the group’s signature song, but “One More Day” is probably their biggest hit.) However, the song benefited from its similarity to Lonestar’s popular sound (and capitalized on the waves of emotional nostalgia that followed the death of Dale Earnhardt and then 9/11), and neither of the album’s other singles were able to build on that momentum (“Sweet Summer” made it to #18 on the country charts, and “That’s Just That” didn’t even crack the Top Forty). Looking back, I’d have to call the disc a major disappointment.

What I wouldn’t call the disc, however, is a major departure from the group’s classic sound: The three non-hit singles stuck pretty close to the group’s tried-and-true sonic formula, and even “One More Day” was more of a rearrangement of existing pieces than a mix of new ones (it’s more paino-driven, but the mandolin and electric guitar are still prominent herein fact, I’d call it less of a deviation from DR’s old sound than “You’re Gone” was). The message the radio and public sent was clear: The old formula wasn’t going to fly anymore, so Diamond Rio needed to adapt or perish.

Here’s where things get interesting: Neither the band nor their label (Arista Nashville) appeared to dispute the fact that something had to change, but the sticking point seems to have been what that change should ultimately be. For their eighth album, Diamond Rio was looking to do something really ambitious, but they couldn’t seem to make the numbers add up. Calvin Gilbert’s CMT article from the time contains a lot of quotes to that effect:

“A lot of songs we get pitched sound like Diamond Rio. Usually, that’s the type of songs we don’t want to hear. When we’re doing a record, we’re looking to reinvent the wheel and not do what we’ve done before.”  Williams

“On every record we do, we’re continually looking for something that’s going to turn some heads and make us stretch as players.”  Prout

“We hadn’t totally come up with the concept, but we were toying around with the idea of a double album — doing one traditional disc, along with a more contemporary piece. That just didn’t seem to work out. Actually, we were having trouble figuring out the [financial] numbers in the publishing.”  Olander

“Unfortunately, country music has blinders on as far as what’s acceptable — and what isn’t…I know there are a lot of business aspects that dictate that you can only have 10 or 13 songs on a CD. We ended up cutting 15 songs for this album.”  Prout

However, if we examine the tracks that wound up making the cut for Completely, “numbers” and “business aspects” seem to be code for “hop on the popular trend,” which was defined by Lonestar’s success at the time. There are indeed some off-the-wall tracks on this album: “Something Cool” has an old-school swing feel, “The Box” is choppier and features Roe blasting through some rapid-fire lyrics, and “Rural Philharmonic” is…well, just imagine what happens when you mash together a bluegrass band and a symphony orchestra. On balance, this is a pretty decent album with plenty of the usual DR magic. However, the single choices are extremely telling: “Beautiful Mess” has a dark, slick, buttoned-down feel, “I Believe” is an emotional ballad in the same vein as “One More Day” and Lonestar’s “Amazed,” and “Wrinkles” and “We All Fall Down” are the sort of sticky-sweet, family-friendly tracks that fit neatly next to tracks like Lonestar’s “My Front Porch Looking In” and “Mr. Mom.” Arista clearly wanted to cash in on Lonestar’s success, and while the ploy half-worked (“Beautiful Mess” and “I Believe” both reached #1 and peaked relatively high on the Hot 100), the latter two singles followed the same pattern as One More Day, with “Wrinkles” stopping at #16 and “We All Fall Down” crashing and burning at #45.

Diamond Rio’s answer to all this was to double down on its search for a new sound, bringing up the same talking points as before:

“We’re going to have some things that we haven’t done in the past, and things you’ll expect out of Diamond Rio. We’ve got a couple of surprises…”   Williams, as told to Brian Dugger, August 2004

“I think to a certain extent we were no longer the flavor of the day … But we were always trying to evolve. We didn’t want to do another ‘Meet in the Middle’…Usually when you have a hit, you get pitched songs that sound just like the hit you just had. I always tell songwriters, ‘Play me something you love that has no shot of getting recorded.'”  —Olander, as told to Randy Cordova, May 2014

This time, the evolution led to “Can’t You Tell,” which Cordova labeled a “horn-driven Latin-country hybrid” nearly a decade later (an apt description given the background horn stabs, percussion choices, and unexpected tone from Olander and Truman’s instruments in particular). The track petered out at #43, and the feel-good follow-up ballad “One Believer” (which was not nearly as sonically ambitious) only outperformed it by one spot. Label issues became a problem at this point as well:

  • Some behind-the scenes restructuring as Arista was folded into RCA brought our old friend “label instability” into the conversation.
  • The group that Arista/RCA aimed to emulate (Lonestar) was essentially pushed off the airwaves by Rascal Flatts, which likely convinced the label that propping up an aging group like Diamond Rio was a losing bet.

Put it all together, and Diamond Rio’s exit from RCA in 2006 didn’t come as much of a surprise. The biggest shocker of all, however, was what happened next.

The Journey

At this point, this is how the story usually goes: The aging artist goes through a rough label breakup, but then joins forces with another label looking to cash in on the artist’s existing fanbase, and brings out a comeback single that takes the world by storm (at least temporarily). We’ve seen this play out recently with several high-profile artists such as Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, and Jake Owen, and Diamond Rio was in position to make such a move in 2006.

So they did just that, signing to country music powerhouse…wait, they signed with Word Records?

Instead of trying to extend their mainstream legacy, Diamond Rio pivoted to completing, as Johnson put it in 2015, “several projects that were on our bucket list,” including a Christmas album in 2007 and a gospel album in 2009. Similar to Randy Travis’s pivot to Christian music, 2009’s The Reason earned the group a number of Dove awards, but Olander would later call the project “not the best version of Diamond Rio.” The group went the independent route next, spending the next six years trying to construct the perfect country and western song album:

“Instead of cutting the album in a two-week period, or two-month period, we’d cut a few songs every year…What that allowed us to do is be very selective about what we cut and to take the time to live with these songs, making the proper edits and decisions.”  —Truman, as told to Gayle Thompson, September 2015

The resulting album I Made It is…well, it’s so scattershot that it’s hard to describe, although you can still hear some of the classic Diamond Rio sound in its tracks. Without any major-label muscle behind it, the album didn’t move the needle in Nashville and never even sniffed the radio, but I got the distinct sense that it didn’t matter to Diamond Rio: They had made the album they wanted, and they seemed completely at peace with their decision not to take another shot at mainstream glory.

Conclusions

So what happened to Diamond Rio? On one hand, it’s the same thing that eventually happens to every act: Your style falls out of favor with the masses, and the industry puts you out to pasture. On the other hand, however, this group took this process in stride like no group I’ve ever seen, choosing to chase their own sound and do things their way instead of raging against the dying of the light. It’s as if the group decided by 2000 that they were playing with house money, and when their original shtick stopped working, they decided to challenge themselves to see what they were capable of, and just let the radio chips fall where they may. Their mainstream career may not have ended on their terms, but they accepted the outcome with unusual serenity and just kind of went about their business, checking boxes on their wish list instead of adding more hits to their discography. They’re doing what they want to do, and in some respects, there’s no greater measure of success.