Diamond Rio remain a cut above the rest
Band that does things their own way visiting The Clyde on Dec. 15
Diamond Rio is a classic country band, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their 1991 self-titled platinum debut album, and the lead single, “Meet in the Middle,” which shot straight to No. 1 on the country charts.
They’ve sold more than 10 million albums, won Grammy, Dove, and Academy of Country Music awards, had four more No. 1 singles, 22 Top 10 singles, and racked up two more platinum and five gold albums. They were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1998, and they’ll be at The Clyde Theatre on Dec. 15 as part of their Holiday & Hits tour.
Doing it their own way
Beyond their commercial success, Diamond Rio are a musician’s band.
Not everybody realizes what an unusual achievement it was, and still is, for a self-contained country band to have a record deal where the members record all their own parts rather than having producers bring in session musicians to replace them in the studio.
Lead singer and acoustic guitarist Marty Roe gave Whatzup an exclusive glimpse into that when we reached him by phone.
“It wasn’t easy, at least not at the beginning,” Roe laughed. “We actually turned down two different offers because they really balked at us playing on our own records. Our whole argument, young and naive as we were: Yes, there are great players in town, but we had some track record. We were working as musicians in town already and we were scratching out a living in the studio for other people.”
New kind of sound
Having started with a core of players doing an outdoor gig at Nashville’s Opryland USA theme park in the ’80s, the band spent years building up a roster of players who understood radio-friendly country, but who also brought in other influences.
It took off when they recruited Jimmy Olander, a banjo player learning lead guitar on a unique instrument, a Telecaster outfitted with the Glaser Bender system.
It’s a guitar customized with internal cables and levers that enable the player to raise the pitch of one string while the others stay the same. A skilled player can use it to create expressive licks that sound like a pedal steel guitar. Many players since the ’70s have used various “B-bender” systems, but the kicker is that Olander mastered a double-bender system. He can manipulate the G and B strings independently by pulling the guitar down and pushing it out. His technique is unique.
“And we saw being unique and different as a good thing,” Roe laughed. With regard to the Diamond Rio sound, “Nashville, believe it or not, the music industry is a little resistant to that.”
Listen to the lone guitar opening “Meet in the Middle,” and you’ll hear the sliding, weeping lick that dumbfounded guitarists everywhere.
“When that song was No. 1 in the country, there wasn’t a bar band in the world playing it, because they couldn’t figure out what Jimmy was doing,” Roe said.
Olander found a willing partner in pianist Dan Truman, “this jazz guy from Utah trained in Las Vegas,” Roe said, and drummer Brian Prout brought a West Coast pop-rock sensibility. Together they imparted a subtle “countrypolitan” flavor, weaving jazz chords into country.
Roe really surprised me when he mentioned the influence of a favorite band of his and mine, the Georgia instrumental prog-rock group the Dixie Dregs, known for rapid-fire smart-aleck unison riffs.
“And we dug all that,” Roe exclaimed. “We would script intro licks and fills that were identifiable to themselves. And they were in triplicate with the piano and the bender guitar and the mandolin! That was such a unique band sound. And I remember thinking, what a cool thing that before the vocal ever comes on, you’re gonna know who this is. And that is what happened. And that is what scared Nashville to death.”
But about that mandolin and the vocals: They brought in “progressive bluegrass” mandolinist Gene Johnson, who sings an authentic “high lonesome” harmony. When bass guitarist Dana Williams arrived, his baritone vocal locked in with Roe and Johnson. Instantly they had tight, Appalachian-tinged three-part harmonies and a blistering acoustic mandolin all over their arrangements. It dovetailed right in with the jazzy guitar, piano, and drums.
“We should market the band sound as much as the vocal,” Roe said. “And the two of them together, we loved it. We were excited about what we did.”
Looking at the bright side
Diamond Rio are known for clever wordplay as well.
Remember “Unbelievable” off the 1998 album of the same name with its rapid-fire strings of tongue-twisting four- and five-syllable words? Whether it’s light-hearted or it goes deeper, Roe explained, “I became a big fan of lyrics. And we are believers in this band and we chose not to be about the stereotypical country songs. We wanted to be about positive things, about relationships and love. I guess maybe some of what we did is a little idealistic in the world’s terms, but it really exists and it really is a good life. I’ve lived it. And it doesn’t mean that you’re perfect or you don’t have issues. But yeah, we love on one another and we stick with one another. And that’s just where we come from.
“It’s entertainment,” he added. “It wants to be fun. Some of it’s just downright stupid. I mean, ‘Unbelievable,’ and ‘How Your Love Makes Me Feel.’ There’s a really good crafting of a song, even in ‘Bubba Hyde.’ That is a well-written, fun, visual song.”
Roe and his original bandmates are excited about doing their Christmas tour for the first time in three years.
Prout retired this year, and the band is joined by their longtime colleague, drummer Micah Schweinsberg. You’ll hear their biggest country hits, songs from their 2007 Christmas album, A Diamond Rio Christmas: The Star Still Shines, and more.
“People show up, and generationally, because kids that were in college in the ’90s, they are parents and grandparents, some of them, and they’ve raised their kids on our music,” Roe said. “I see teenagers singing every word to our songs. It’s just such a blessing and we enjoy that immensely.”