Diamond Rio is that musical group that hits you like a warm tropical breeze at first because of their gentle, earthy bluegrass vibe. Then suddenly their songs are more like a hurricane that cuts a swarthy path to your emotions with the powerful messages their lyrics contain.
There's that quiet surreal moment when the impact of one of their songs finds a nerve, or a heartstring tapping into a buried memory or an unexpected feeling, leaving an unmistakable mark whether or not Marty Roe (lead vocals), Jimmy Olander (guitar), Dan Truman (keyboards), Brian Prout (drummer), Dana Williams (bass) and Gene Johnson (mandolin, vocals) planned it that way.
Case in point, their song "One More Day" first went into rotation in February 2001, shortly after the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. A New York radio station began playing the song as a tribute, and other stations followed suit. "One More Day" also received heavy radio play after 9/11 as a tribute song to the victims of the attacks. Maybe it's just timing, maybe their songs are just timeless, but whatever it is, these guys have made a lasting footprint on the music business and continue to blaze new trails.
A few years ago, the guys were here in Laughlin promoting their latest release, The Reason, both the title track and name of their album, which also marked a new direction in their music — contemporary Christian music. The album won the 2010 Dove Award for Country Album of the Year and it received a Grammy nomination.
Since forming in 1984, they have released nine studio albums, two greatest hits collections and a Christmas album. Their 1991 single, “Meet In The Middle,” sailed all the way to the No. 1 position. They have sold over 10 million albums (with hits like “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “Norma Jean Riley,” “Beautiful Mess,” “One More Day,” “I Believe” and “Love a Little Stronger”); won the Country Music Association’s Vocal Group of the Year award four times; and were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1998.
So where does a band go from here when they’ve met with so much success? Anywhere they want. Their latest album, I Made It, features 11 new songs and their CD/DVD combo, Diamond Rio LIVE is 20 years of hits, exclusive interviews, and stories, along with a never-before recorded "newgrass" medley and a western medley.
One of the band's proudest and most recent accomplishments was celebrating a milestone 20th anniversary as Grand Ole Opry members in April last year. Diamond Rio was inducted in 1998, becoming the first group since The Whites, who joined in 1984.
“I have all these memories of the Opry, and then to think that we’ve become members of this institution, it’s overwhelming. It still is to this day,” said Williams.
The last time Diamond Rio was on their way to Laughlin, we talked with Gene Johnson, on mandolin and vocals, about projects, their career and what was around the bend as seasoned road warriors. Their story remains the same — continuing their journey traveling across the country, bringing their music to fans who still remember those powerful lyrics and how they made them feel, more than 20 years later. The fact that the same Diamond Rio lineup has been together since 1989, also speaks volumes about a group of guys who believed in what they were doing from the beginning and never lost sight of that.
"Our last member was when Dana came on board in 1989, in January or February, 30 years ago," Johnson said. "We might have the record for longevity for a six-man group, since we've passed our silver anniversary.
"How many people stay married that long? And that's just two people," he added. "The secret to staying together this long? You know, we get asked that question a lot and I've heard a lot of different answers from the different guys. I look at it like this — it's due to the luck of the draw. It just happened that we put six guys together that had the right temperament and personalities to work through things and not break down into fist fights, which is pretty normal for any group.
"It's been amazing. I think if you ask any one of us back when we were getting this ball rolling if we'd still be doing this years later, the answer would have been, 'I hope so.' But we never would have guessed," he said. "I bet there's not many bands who can say that. They may have started out with six, and now there's three, or something.
"Sure, we have differences. Six of us are not going to agree on everything. We always set things up as a democratic process and if it comes to three for and three against, the decision sits around a while. If the vote is 4-2, two people lose but maybe we win the next time out. Maybe we should have been a five-member band or a seven-member band. There wouldn't be any ties that way," he said.
This band of musical brothers stuck to their guns when it came to performing their own music in recording sessions, rather than using studio musicians.
"That's part of what made Diamond Rio different," Johnson said. "We never used studio musicians or singers. What people hear is who we are and that's not the way it is with most groups out there. They use studio musicians to record the music and then there would be somewhat of the same sound when they played on somebody else's record.
"We were able to stand firm, telling the label we don't need or want anybody else doing our music, we want to do it," he explained. "There was a different wall put up then and artists were told, 'you can't do that.' Well, it just happened to be we had a record label that was a little looser than the others and they saw us play live, thinking, 'they can do it.'"
But the music business in general is one of compromises, and Diamond Rio learned to pick their battles.
"There are always compromises," Johnson said. "I would say 95 percent of what's on our records, we chose. There was always someone who said, 'I want you to do this one.' So we'd throw it into the mix of good songs.
"Sometimes they were correct and it was big and sometimes it was a song nobody ever paid attention to. But most of them we definitely sorted out and recorded what we wanted," he said.
The powerful song, "One More Day" turned out to be so much more than a hit, becoming a tribute song to victims of the 9/11 attacks, as well as a tribute to Dale Earnhardt.
"Naturally that song was written as a love song, but as it turned out it happened to be out at that point in time when Dale was killed. It was almost kind of painful, using our song because we were friends with Dale and worked with him — we worked his Christmas party," Johnson said. "I hated that it was used for that but it was a good use for it, too. It was touching people, helping them to heal. Again it comes around that it's used for 9/11, but it's one of those things that touched people in a good way, and it's still good. It hardly fails to look out in the audience and see tears and people singing along with it. Obviously, it touched a lot of people. I hate to see tears, but it's good to be part of the healing process."
Of course, that song is one of the many hits the guys will perform for this trip to Laughlin.
"We have to do the hits obviously, and fortunately we have enough that we don't always have room for in the show, so we do medleys in there to hit the high points of some of the hits," he said. "No matter how many we fit in a show, someone always says, 'You didn't do my favorite song.'
"We've got a lot of albums out there and we can't cover them all. We always throw in something that's unexpected, something people would not expect to hear from us," he added. "We keep the show entertaining, that's why folks are there. We let the vocals shine every once in a while and some of our songs get a little extended musicianship that they didn't get on the album so we give it a little more attention on the live stage."
"We're slowing getting to our bucket list," he said. "When you have six guys on a project, we're not big on rushing into anything. Hopefully we'll always do it right, take our time…sometimes too much time.
"We'd probably get to it more but you have six guys trying to agree on when to get together. The main thing is that we still spend quite a bit of time on the road and love time off. If we were to throw another record together, it takes time and who wants to give up their time off?"