Blue Sky Riders Are Soaring Into South by Southwest

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Clearly, Blue Sky Riders are on a crusade to bring their music to the world. This week, they’ll touch down at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin. It’s the latest high-profile gig for this upbeat trio, made up of pop star Kenny Loggins and Nashville songwriting couple Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman.

Coinciding with their album release in January, the trio sang on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and the Grand Ole Opry. But like a squad of action heroes, there is no definitive leader of Blue Sky Riders. Instead, all three members trade time on the microphone — often on the same song.

“We did have a moment of wondering, ‘Will this work? Will we be confusing to people? Will people say, “Hey, what happened to the guy I was listening to? Will he come back?’ And then we just decided that rules are for suckers,” says Burr, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, thanks to hits like Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job” and Ty Herndon’s “What Mattered Most.”

Meanwhile, Middleman has found success with Keith Urban’s recording of “I’m In,” as well as a song from ABC’s Nashville titled “When the Right One Comes Along. ” And, of course, Loggins’ rich rock catalog includes Loggins & Messina classics such as “Danny’s Song” and “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and 1980s solo staples like “Danger Zone” and “Footloose.”

When Loggins was writing and recording an album in Nashville a few years ago, he partnered with Burr on a few tracks. Their vocal blend impressed both musicians, but there was just one thing missing.

CMT Edge: What do you all remember about the first time you sang together?

Loggins: That would be when I flew to Nashville to meet Georgia for the first time. We figured the best way to meet each other, after the small talk was over, was to get down to writing songs. We sat together and wrote our first song, “I Get It,” which is on the album. And during the process of writing, we sang together obviously — and that was what clinched the deal. It sounded so good. I was blown away.

What was going through your mind when you finally met up that day?

Burr: We discovered while we were writing and singing that night that we are all harmony singers. We’ve all sung harmonies. And while we were writing the song, we would get to a part of the song and look at each other, make a hand gesture, and we’d instinctively know, “OK, I’ll take that one. … Now you sing this part next time.” We were producing the vocal as we were going. By the time we were done with the song, all of these elaborate vocals were integral to what we wrote. We looked at each other and said, “That was an amazing experience!”

Georgia, what made you want to join this band?

Middleman: I always love writing with good people. What’s been so frustrating to me over the years is having really good chemistry with people and knowing it doesn’t go past this writing day. That’s cool when you’re just writing for projects. Getting together with these guys, I grew up loving what they did. Sitting in a room with them, I thought how easy and fun that was — and we actually have a place for this? We get to do this over and over again? It was something I absolutely had to be a part of.

The message of “Dream” is about believing in yourself. Is that an essential skill for songwriters?

Burr: Absolutely. We’re in an industry where it’s 999 no’s for every one yes. They say you have to develop a thick skin. We all develop ways to pretend we have a thick skin. I mean, I’ve been doing this for longer than 30 years. I sent a batch of songs the other day to the powers-that-be, and I didn’t get a response. I’m heartbroken. It’s like, “I guess I suck.” You never develop a thick skin. But the story of that is when somebody said to Kenny, “Maybe you’re too old to reinvent yourself.” He told us that story, and it made us go, “Wow, maybe we are too.” It takes your wind down, then you get defiant. You either get defiant, or you get gone, and we didn’t want to get gone.

That takes some nerve to say something like that. Kenny, who told you that?

Loggins: An advisor of mine. He made a half-hour case for the logic of thinking about retiring and gearing up for that. But it’s not what you do as an artist. Or at least it’s not what I do. I tried retiring when I was 50, and it didn’t work. I got very depressed.

Middleman: And the guy was a business guy, right? He had a lot of good points.

Loggins: Yeah, it makes sense, you know. Write a lot of songs with established writers. Squirrel your money away and retire in a year or two. But I know I would just shoot myself.

Middleman: When I was writing for different publishing companies, I would write with people who would turn me on. The companies would say, “You’ve got to write smarter. You’ve got to write with people who are getting cuts.” I was like, “But these are great people!” So I’ve just gone with whatever turned me on, usually to the detriment of getting dropped from a publishing deal for not getting enough cuts. And I get it — the bottom line. But this is turning me on.

Do you feel like there’s a sense of optimism on this record?

Burr: Oh, yeah. There are a couple of tearjerkers, but this was all so much fun that we ended up writing songs about achievement and daring.

How big would you like to see this band become?

Burr: At the very minimum, when we first talked about it, I said, “You know, it would be great if this was an eclectic side project.” Maybe we could have enough success to go play Farm Aid, and it would be a big deal. We could play Coachella, and it would be a fun thing. Then we could go do our day jobs. But this has all progressed, and we love what we’ve done. We’re so proud of it, and we have invested so much time and energy and money and everything in the last two years. We’ve pretty much made this our focus, and we cannot and will not settle for that now. Now we want to reach everyone and let them know what we’re doing. It’s a lot more important to us to track down those fans, wherever they are.

Loggins: In my wildest dreams, I would like us to play arenas. But what band doesn’t? It’s the American dream right now. And I’ve gotten to dream it — and it’s come true a couple of times — so why not?

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