It Takes One

Lonestar is made up of five guys from Texas who each separately took their dreams of stardom to Nashville. It's the kind of story that usually ends with crushed hopes and poverty, or worse. Very few end the way Lonestar's does: with gold records and No. 1 hits. But when success comes, it only looks like it happens overnight.

Keyboardist Dean Sams met singer/guitarist Richie McDonald in Dallas at a 1992 musician audition for the Opryland theme park. Sams was hired; McDonald went back to driving a Coke truck. But McDonald did not give up. He met up with Sams a year later in Music City, and the two decided to form a band. They gathered guitarist Michael Britt, drummer Keech Rainwater and bass player John Rich, and the quintet impressed a booking agent enough that he sent them out into the world in a Jeep Cherokee to play more than 500 concerts in two years.

And McDonald says spending so much time together turned them all into friends. Even today, when they spend days apart, he says, "We'll always say we're definitely in a business relationship, but no matter what, we're still friends. When we're off the road we'll still give one another a call because it's really like we never get tired of each other. That's the coolest thing about this band. There have never been any conflicts to speak of, and that's probably one of the reasons that we're still together. We all have the same likes and dislikes, and we're all working towards the same goals."

Calling from his home in Nashville, McDonald does speak Bob Segeresque cliches about time spent on the road: "It has good and bad points. The bad is being away from your family for so long, but that's just a part of it. It's a dream come true for all of us; we're never complaining about what we're doing out there." But when he is interrupted by his three-year-old son wanting to watch television, it makes sense that going out for six weeks of radio station touring (as the band is set to do in advance of its third record, Lonesome Grill) might not be as appealing.

McDonald knows that the band's extensive roadwork is directly responsible for its success. "Those first few years, before we had our record deal, that was definitely a learning experience. We took that time to try and develop a sound," he says. "We're all writers in the band, and it taught us to craft our skills of writing. The road allowed us time to do that."

The road also taught Lonestar to appreciate and respect its audiences. Country musicians have long known that treating their fans right was the best way to ensure success. The Fan Fair convention, held every summer as a way for artists to repay the faithful, is proof, as is the repeated success in the careers of Garth Brooks and Alabama. When Lonestar took the time to sign autographs after every show, just as Alabama did, fans responded in kind. Lonestar's first, eponymous record, released in 1995, sold 500,000 copies in under a year. The single "No News" hit the top of the country charts. Best New Group awards came from the Academy of Country Music, Billboard and Country Weekly. The band started touring in a bus. Not a bad climb.

The sounds that brought them the sales and accolades were radio-friendly and hook-driven. McDonald's and Rich's voices were strong enough that the guys dug them, and the lyrics were sensitive enough for female fans. That 22-year-old Rich kept his jeans tight didn't hurt, either.

The sophomore record, Crazy Nights (BNA), came out in October 1997 and repeated the pattern. It has a trio of hit songs -- though only "Come Cryin' to Me" went to the top -- including the song Mutt Lange (a.k.a. Mr. Shania Twain) penned, "You Walked In." Now, the band is set to release Lonesome Grill, its first record since Rich went solo. Due in April, it has the potential to be the group's biggest seller, in part because only McDonald handles lead vocals and partially because the band's success has prompted more songwriters to solicit it to use their material.

And this extends to how the band put together Lonesome Grill. McDonald says that the band sat around a table at its label offices picking the tracks for Grill with one thing in mind. "We knew that we just wanted to try to find hits. We had some great songs pitched to us for this third album," and, McDonald says, he felt his band didn't have that luxury on the first two.

Business reasons seem to be at the forefront of McDonald's mind when Rich's departure comes up. Although the band spent so much time in close quarters, Rich doesn't seem to be missed that much, but McDonald is more than courteous. "Things have worked out really good for us because we have a direction and we have one sound. There are so many acts out there right now we feel like this is what we had to do to try and establish ourselves. We wish John the best of luck; things will work out for him."

Lonestar's concern with presenting itself as salable as possible makes a lot of sense. Country music sales are slumping, with only 2.7 percent growth in 1998, according the Recording Industry Association of America. (The entire record industry grew by 12 percent last year.) Country's numbers are steady thanks mostly to Garth Brooks's selling 10 percent of the overall 73 million country records sold.

"Nowadays the competition is more fierce than ever as far as where you're playing, trying to get your product in the stores, or whatever," McDonald says. "I don't think [being established] has really changed things or made it easier for us, because it's tougher than ever. We feel like we have to keep making our show or sound better to try and stay up with everybody else."

Lonestar performs Saturday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Call (713)629-3700 for info.


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