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Nashville Scene Lonely at the Top

One country group's remarkable climb up the pop charts

By Beverly Keel

APRIL 3, 2000:  Although much ado has been made over Faith Hill's and Shania Twain's forays into the pop music arena, the real Cinderella story of late has been Lonestar's recent dance at the top of the pop charts for two weeks.

Not only did the group's "Amazed" hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 chart--which is something no country artist has done since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton hit with "Islands in the Stream" in 1983--Lonestar became the first act to have two different No. 1 singles on two different charts, when "Smile" simultaneously sat atop Billboard's country chart (where "Amazed" had remained for an impressive eight weeks). These two radio hits have propelled the group's album, Lonely Grill, to more than 2 million in sales, making it country's fourth best-selling album this year.

"People say that country music is down right now, sales are down, and it's not the best it has ever been," says lead singer Richie McDonald. "But for Lonestar, it is. It's a matter of having a great song and maybe being at the right place at the right time. The stars are in line for us or something."

The success of "Amazed" has definitely achieved one thing that the group's label, RCA, had been working on for several years: name recognition. Although the band scored its first Top 5 hit in 1995 with "Tequila Talkin'," then followed that up with a No. 1 single ("No News"), a platinum album, and an ACM Award, it was hard to tell Lonestar from Ricochet, or any other band for that matter. They all wore Wranglers and cowboy hats and sang contemporary country with a little twang.

"If there was one marketing point we had to accomplish, it was to differentiate the band from the other bands out there," says Joe Galante, chairman of RCA Label Group. "[Now] when you think of a country band, you think of Lonestar. We have separated ourselves miles from the other bands."

Lonestar's success is growing somewhat slowly compared to the publicity received by Twain, Hill, and the Dixie Chicks. Part of this might be due to the fact that a group of guys doesn't exude the same kind of sex appeal as a female solo act or a trio of blondes, but it's also because RCA and Lonestar manager Bill Carter planned it that way. Now that Lonestar is becoming a recognized name and sound, the next step is to make Richie McDonald identifiable as the lead singer--something that has already begun.

"Country radio began telling me, 'Richie is really a sexy guy,' " Carter says. "He is becoming perceived as a ballad singer and a singer of love songs. On Leno, somebody on the staff said, 'He's the Ricky Martin of country music.' It's a natural evolution of an image rather than us creating an image and trying to sell it, and that's why it works. The music developed an image of its own."

This musical transformation began in the summer of '98, when the band started performing an acoustic version of its hit "Everything's Changed" for radio stations. Since Lonestar had always recorded with the city's top studio musicians, the new version was a different experience--one that gave new meaning to the song's lyrics. Inspired by the results, the band decided it was time to reinvent itself.

The first step was to find a producer who would allow the band members to have input into the creative process. "I don't think anybody had any idea of what we were going to do, what direction we were going," says keyboardist Dean Sams. One person did, however: Dann Huff, who'd started making a name for himself as a producer after working for years as an in-demand guitarist.

Says McDonald, "We felt like we were treading water and we wanted to make a big splash. Dann came in and let us have a little creative control--he didn't give us the reins and say, 'take off'--and between that and his ideas and his direction, basically we came up with the sound that we finally feel like is us."

When the band finished recording Lonely Grill, the members realized that their look should change too. Gone were the jeans and hats, and in were fashionable V-neck sweaters and trendy trousers.

Ironically, the album's first single, "Saturday Night," flopped. "In spite of 'Amazed' being No. 1 [on the country charts] for eight weeks, it took us about two months to get everybody in the country format on it," Galante says. But after all that work, no one really expected that "Amazed" would turn into a pop hit. "This was done with three people," Galante says. "If you look at Faith and Shania, they have the pop staffs of Mercury and Warner Bros., which is in the area of 40 people. This is like David and Goliath: You are going up against these well-financed and -staffed companies with this little country record."

Now that Lonestar has broken through, though, the group has no intention of following up with another pop hit. "We're first and foremost a country band, and we have no desire to be anything other than that," McDonald says. Although Galante estimates the group has sold about 800,000 albums since Christmas, there are no plans to remix the song "Smile" for pop: It costs up to $1 million to work a song at pop radio, so country labels aren't often willing to take that gamble. "We will continue to work our songs at country radio," Galante says. "If somebody comes back to us and says we want to play it, we don't tell them not to play it."

Meanwhile, Lonestar is continuing its slow, steady growth. The group, which once played to about 200 fans nightly, now draws crowds of 3,500. Rather than jumping immediately on its newfound success, the band will continue to open for acts such as Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn through the summer, then launch a fall tour headlining small theaters. "We planned this year to take a very conservative approach," Carter says.

Publicists have begun an all-out attack on national television, as evidenced by a recent appearance on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, while the label intends to work several more singles from the current album. In addition, RCA is taking Lonestar international, with releases in Europe, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and even Chile. "Every day, we get a new territory releasing this project," Galante says, "and the record is working."

The band is currently recording a Christmas CD and a new album, which will be released in the latter half of next year. McDonald admits that the recent success "definitely raises the stakes, takes that bar a little higher," but the band is up to the challenge. "A lot of times when people are pitching us songs, they'll say, 'This is like 'Amazed.' [But] you don't want to do a sequel to a song.

"We've got to put all of our energies into this next album because it's got to be better than the last," McDonald concludes. "I believe in Dann and believe it can be done. 'Amazed' gives us a mark to shoot for, and that's not a bad thing. Hopefully the stars will be in the same line this time."

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