So, you think one person really can’t make a difference, eh? Lonestar begs to differ.
The No. 1 rules when it comes to bands is that eventually, they always break up. (No. 2 is that they’ll always get back together for the reunion years right when people stop caring about them.) The incredible lineup consistency of a group like, say, Alabama is a rarity in the music industry, as the forces pulling the members can be incredibly strong (especially when it comes to the lead singer). Nevertheless, amidst all the coming and goings around them, sometimes a group stumbles on a winning formula that catapults them into the stratosphere, a sound that drives both fans and label bean-counters crazy and imprints the group onto the nation’s consciousness.
One band who found that winning formula once upon a time was Lonestar, who spent the early 2000s as the band in country music. The good times didn’t last, of course, which led to Nick’s recent inquiry as to what might have happened:
Lonestar has had some notable departures over the years, but after looking over their career, it appears that there were four major personnel changes that influenced the band’s success, and ultimately led to its downfall.
Change #1: The Loss Of John Rich
It’s hard to recall now, but back when Lonestar appeared on the mainstream Nashville scene back in 1995, they actually had two lead singers: The one you’ve heard (Richie McDonald) and the one you likely haven’t heard, at least on their singles (John Rich). Rich is better known these days for being half of the duo Big & Rich and one of the founders of the MuzikMafia movement back in the mid 2000s, but he was essentially a co-vocalist with McDonald for the band’s first two albums, 1995’s Lonestar and 1997’s Crazy Nights. However, Rich’s role next to McDonald was similar to Kix Brooks’s role next to Ronnie Dunn: He was only given lead billing on a single single (1996’s “Heartbroke Every Day,” which peaked at a mediocre #18), and was completely overshadowed by McDonald’s success with “Tequila Talkin’,” “No News,” and “Come Cryin’ To Me.” During this time, Lonestar’s sound was very middle-of-the-road for the time period. (Seriously, if you listen to their stuff back-to-back with Diamond Rio, the groups sound nearly identical, although I’d give Diamond Rio the edge with its mandolin and “Taxicaster.”)
Band members are known to feud and split over creative differences, but Rich’s departure following Crazy Nights was characterized as “a firing,” and years later McDonald put the blame squarely on BNA Records when asked about it:
“John left the band back then because the label wanted another direction. We tried to be Brooks and Dunn and have two lead singers and it wasn’t working.” —As told to Craig Spychalla, July 2012
The label may be a constant presence during the band’s comings and going, but this won’t be the last time the invisible hand behind the scenes appears in this story.
In terms of its input, I’d argue that this was probably the least impactful of the changes Lonestar went through. Their sound changed substantially on their post-Rich records, but that is likely due to the next change we’ll discuss in a second, and anyone who’s heard “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy” knows that Rich is hardly a spokesman for the neotraditional sound. (In fact, Big & Rich’s eventual No. 1 “Lost In This Moment” was as slick and sappy as anything Lonestar ever released.) Lonestar’s strategic sonic shift was more about who joined the team than who left it.
Change #2: The Addition of Dann Huff
Today, Dann Huff is best known for his work with some of the biggest acts of the 2000s, including Faith Hill, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. In the late 90s, however, he was just starting to transition from a session musician to a producer. Lonestar appears to be one of Huff’s earliest clients (Wikipedia claims the group “chose” Huff, but the citation link is broken and it’s hard to tell how much artistic freedom an act really has when choosing a producer.), and the difference was immediately apparent, even if the first attempt (the hard-edged “Saturday Night,” which would probably qualify as Bro-Country if it were released today) fell flat upon release. The next single, however, is one everybody knows:
“Amazed” was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle, once-a-decade monster hits that completely changes the landscape around it. It spent eight weeks atop Billboard’s country charts, and then a remix release topped the Hot 100 (one of only two country songs to do so in the 2000s) and reached #2 on the Adult Contemporary charts. Most notably, this was a much slicker sound than much of Lonestar’s past (more-prominent piano, a more spacious and atmospheric feel, and a much softer sound than some of the rollicking tunes Lonestar had pushed up to that point. Both Lonestar and Huff were suddenly on the A-list, and the people wanted more.
More is exactly what the people got: “Smile” and “Tell Her” were a bit darker in tone, but that ballad-ready sound was the string that tied them all together, and “I’m Already There” took it to another level with its full string section and super-sappy writing. (“What About Now” doesn’t quite fit this mold, but it’s definitely got some pop sensibilities, and felt like a nice blend of Lonestar’s older and newer styles.) The group went on a mini-roll, racking up five #1 hits in a row and earning them both the CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year awards in 2001. This would be the sound that both Lonestar and Huff would become known for in the public consciousness.
The next few years would not be quite as lucrative for the group, but they still carved out a decent living in the genre with ballads like “Not A Day Goes By,” “My Front Porch Looking In,” and “Let’s Be Us Again.” At some point, however, people started realizing that all the group’s songs were starting to sound the same, and as Nick notes in his comment, the group’s music started being labeled as “soccer-mom music” (think today’s “Boyfriend country” trend, but more mature and family-oriented, although no more interesting). I would argue that the group officially jumped the shark with 2004’s “Mr. Mom,” which leaned into the motif extra-hard as it detailed the narrator’s utter failure to fill his wife’s shoes. The group saw the same issue, but as guitarist Michael Britt noted later, that invisible hand we mentioned earlier kept pushing them farther and farther out on a limb:
“I think we painted ourselves into a corner between songs that were being written and songs that the label was putting out. They started putting out a bunch of family-type songs. I think that really pigeonholed us. The majority of the band didn’t really want to continue doing that same thing. But that’s what kept getting put out.
“We had songs like ‘I’m Already There,’ ‘Front Porch’ and ‘Mr. Mom’ kind of back to back. I think that really limited our appeal to a mass audience. When we had songs like ‘Amazed,’ anybody in love could relate to it. Suddenly, [it was] ‘OK, they’re in love, but they have to have kids’ and then, ‘Well, the kids have to be this age.’ It kind of really started limiting our audience. I think that’s what started the slowdown.” —As told to Edward Morris, April 2007
“Mr. Mom” wound up being the group’s last #1 single, and they had only two more songs reach the Top 10. What happened after that?
Change #3: The Loss Of Dann Huff
2005 saw the release of Lonestar’s Coming Home, and the leadoff single and title track showed off yet another distinct shift in sound: The sound was less atmospheric and more rustic, instruments like the prominent piano and strings were replaced with dobros and acoustic guitars, and the previously-slick electric guitars suddenly had a rougher edge to them. It was the sort of sound that Dann Huff would would never have stood for, but he had already jumped ship for greener pastures:
“We basically had a producer decide he didn’t want to produce us anymore.” —McDonald
“He thought it would somehow be a conflict of interest [to stay with us]. He was really excited about doing them [Rascal Flatts], and he just bowed out.” —Britt
Given our previous analysis of Rascal Flatts’s career, the move was an especially prescient one for Huff, who remains in demand to this day (guess who co-produced Thomas Rhett’s “Die A Happy Man”?). In his absence, the band decided to step back from the over-produced ballads they had become known for and get back to their roots:
“I think our main focus when we started doing the Coming Home CD was, ‘What do we sound like live?’ I mean, do we really have five guitar players on stage? Do we really have three fiddle players and four keyboard players and all this stuff you have to have in a lot of productions that we’ve done in the past because Dann really likes to layer sound? We really just wanted to make it sound like who we are as a band. Back when we started out, I remember we rented a little rehearsal hall. Each of us had one instrument and just played and sang. That’s what this record reminds me of. It’s simplistic, but it shows every aspect of each individual member of this band.” —Keyboardist Dean Sams
Doing your own thing is well within your rights as a group, but just like Toby Keith found out, the public can be awfully quick to drop you if they’re not digging your style. After “You’re Like Coming Home” peaked at #8, the follow-up single “I’ll Die Trying” crashed and burned before it could even reach the Top 40. 2007’s Mountains suffered a similar fate: The title track made it to #10, but “Nothing To Prove” proved exactly nothing by not even cracking the Top 50.
Once the group started taking on water, BNA was the first one off the boat, dropping the band from the label in 2007. Being label-less after a few sparse years is a tough spot, but it was the next blow that ultimately proved to be the fatal one.
Change #4: The Loss of Richie McDonald
Success can be a powerful tonic for creative tension, but when things start going south, the whispers in the ear of a lead singer start getting louder and louder. After losing their label, the temptation of a solo career under his own name was too much for McDonald to resist, and he departed from the group. The split appeared amicable at the beginning, but it didn’t take long for the knives to come out:
“We are very proud of our work and success over the last 10-plus years and are thankful to our wonderful and supportive fans for always being there for us. Dean, Keech and I feel like we still have a lot of great Lonestar music to make and we are excited about this new opportunity to continue playing for our fans. Richie will be missed, and we wish him luck in his future endeavors.” —Britt, March 2007
“I think what he really wanted was for the band to just end. The other three of us were really in no position to want to do that…As time went on, I think maybe Richie tried to assert himself a little bit more into the song-selection process. Honestly, it didn’t turn out that successful…Richie wasn’t happy. Who knows why? He was writing the songs that were getting to be singles and all that. Hopefully, he’ll be happier doing what he wants to do, and, hopefully, we will get to reassert ourselves as equal members and find someone that will really be excited about going out on the road and making records.” —Britt, April 2007
As salty as Britt may have been, this is the Faustian bargain he made when he became one of the “other” members of the band: You may obtain fame and fortune, but it’ll be completely dependent on the whims of the face of the franchise, and when they decide to move on, your golden goose goes with them. Losing McDonald may mean regaining your artistic freedom, but you’re starting behind the eight ball because not only does no one know your sound, but they also all remember McDonald’s sound, and if they don’t like what they hear from you, they’ll declare the band DOA and walk away.
I’m sure Cody Collins was a charming and capable performer, but I’d never heard of him until I started researching this piece, which tells you exactly how well the post-McDonald Lonestar era went. Since 2007, the highest peak the group has reached on Billboard’s country chart was a paltry #50. For Britt, Sams, and drummer Keech Rainwater, the ride was officially over.
For McDonald…actually, the ride basically ended for him too: That #50 peak for post-2007 Lonestar is actually higher than the peak of the entirety of McDonald’s solo career (he had a pair of #51 singles), and predictably the two parties eventually patched up their differences and reunited in 2011. By then, however, the genre zeitgeist had moved on from fluffy pop-country to a sinister new trend (2011 was also the year Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” came out as a single, and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” would follow a year later), and a twenty-year-old band like Lonestar no longer had a space at the table.
Lonestar, like so many bands before it, fell off the mountain because the various players involved just couldn’t stomach the thought of dealing with each other anymore. Just when the label, producer, and group stumbled onto a golden goose in the form of family-friendly pop country, everybody starting pulling in a different direction: The label doubled down on the sound, the band wanted to return to their earlier form, and the producer saw the writing on the wall and made his escape before the roof caved in. However, even after all that I think that Lonestar, while it never would have stood a chance against the coming Bro-Country monster, could have chugged along for a few more years than they did. Once McDonald left, however, the group was suddenly estranged from the rest of their discography, and the public would accept no substitutions.
This sort of story is why it’s hard to truly form an attachment with a duo, trio, or full-size band: Deep down, you know that the whole thing could collapse in a hurry (anyone remember The Wreckers back in the day?). Lonestar had their day in the sun, but they couldn’t escape the fact that artists are human beings with their own opinions, and that the loss or gain of a single person can be the difference between flying and falling.