Bona fide, self-contained country bands are almost as rare now as they were in the early-1980s. Then Restless Heart came along with a crossover-ready take on country, featuring keyboards just as prominently as guitar and stacking their crystalline harmonies sky high.
The band — made up of Larry Stewart, Greg Jennings, Dave Innis, Paul Gregg and John Dittrich — scored a bunch of radio hits between the mid-‘80s and ‘90s, a dozen of which are included on their recent collection Playlist: The Very Best of Restless Heart, alongside a pair of new songs.
Most importantly, at least for our purposes, Stewart, the quintet’s lead singer, has plenty to say about living, learning and lasting as a band for three decades.
CMT Edge: When you guys came along, the Statler Brothers and Oak Ridge Boys had had success, but they were vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists. Then there was Alabama. Bands like Sawyer Brown, Diamond Rio and BlackHawk hadn’t started putting out music yet. When you looked at the country music landscape, what niche did you want to fill with Restless Heart?
Stewart: We had no idea what we were doing, really. All we knew is that we had a great songwriter in Tim DuBois and a great engineer in Scott Hendricks. We had a little something that was worth doing because when we got together and played and sang together, it was like we were already a family. It was really a unique experience when the five of us gathered around a mic and sang together.
When [our music] came out of the speakers, it was a bit of a contemporary sound, although we were all over the board instrumentally. We would do a country-rock song like “Let the Heartache Ride,” then we would do a beautiful song like “I’ll Still Be Loving You” or a pop-y little thing like “Why Does It Have to Be (Wrong or Right).” Instrumentally, we could do anything we wanted to do to the song, but our common thread was our voices. And at that time on country radio, it was really a traditional time.
Right. The neo-traditionalist movement.
We started at the same time as Randy Travis. He was in his bread truck and we were traveling up and down the road, doing some festivals together. Then he exploded on the scene. So all the sudden, country radio became the Judds, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait — rawer country, bluegrassy kind of a thing. Then here come these longhaired dudes with this contemporary sound.
There are so many different approaches to harmony. The Statlers and Oaks came from a gospel quartet tradition, and bluegrass has its own singing tradition. You guys were bringing a sleeker, more modern vocal blend. Where’d you get your idea of how the vocal blend should sound?
It was really a trial and error at the very beginning of getting everyone involved in this vocal sound.
Oh, and by the way, you were talking about all the gospel and the bluegrass, that’s what I grew up on. I grew up in Kentucky doing a whole lot of quartet stuff with my father. I played the piano for his quartets around the area, from the age of 8 years old on. Then being from Kentucky, we had a lot of friends that really loved bluegrass. We would get together in their barns, and I would be a little bit a part of that. My voice doesn’t lend itself to that tenor-y bluegrass thing.
That’s what I grew up on. Then I get here, and I get in a band and it was just kinda one of those things. It was really a Tim DuBois vision as we gathered around a piano or a guitar and worked out the harmony parts. It was so magical, and it just came so easy for us. We just made that our sound.
There are a few songs about small towns in your repertoire, like “Big Dreams in a Small Town” and the new number “Memphis Rain.” But most of your songs haven’t told stories tied to the South or to rural life, like you’d hear from neo-traditionalists. You’ve always done a lot of love songs and ballads and seen some of them cross over to the adult contemporary chart.
Well, I kinda think some of that is my fault.
In what way?
Because of the sound of my voice. I talk country. I’m from Kentucky. But when I sing, it’s not really a traditional sound.
Not only were we looking for a great lyric, but we had to have that chorus that had the right chord progressions and the simplicity where you could wrap those harmonies around it. You couldn’t have a lot of chord changes or this, that and the other — something weird that didn’t lend itself to harmony.
In country, rock, pop and modern music, in general, the assumption has been that ballads and tender-hearted songs go over especially well with female fans. Has that been the case for Restless Heart?
I think female [fans have] really been our staple supporters. But we get a lot of support from the guys, too.
Would we have been at a different place in our career if we had had different song choices at certain times or had the opportunity to record a certain kind of song — a party song or a rock thing. Who knows?
We all five played on every song. We didn’t even have a guest player until much later in our careers. It was all five of us in the studio grinding it out and making the best records that we could. … But as far as trying to fit a certain mold that radio said we needed to fit or the label said we needed to fit, it wasn’t that at all. Because we were upstreamin’ there for a few years.
Many times, I’ve heard people say they wish they could go back to college as full-fledged adults, when they have their priorities straight, because they’d appreciate it more. How does performing with this band as veterans, who’ve been through the ups and downs and parting of ways and reuniting, compare with those youthful days when you didn’t know what you were doing?
We certainly did not handle our successes as well as we’d like, I can promise you that. We were just like any other band — guys trying to survive, living together more than we were with our families, being tugged a million different ways and trying to agree on things and trying to just deal with being gone. I’m sure it’s normal with all bands [to say] that it wasn’t a wonderful eight years.
But having said that, when we shut this thing down for a while and let everybody kinda get their feet on the ground and figure life out, and then we decided to get back together and do a few songs and see if anybody cared, that’s when we realized that we were so fortunate and the fans were so supportive and we just had a great run. So if it wasn’t for shuttin’ it down and really going through a hard time way back in the ‘90s, I don’t think we’d be together today.
Many of the country artists that you came up with aren’t on major labels anymore. The old career model of chasing No. 1 singles no longer applies. How do you sustain your career now?
The main thing is getting on the bus and going down the road and playing for the fans, even as far as reintroducing ourselves to the younger country music fans. That’s kinda where our business has gone.
The whole record-making major label thing is over for all of us from that era — except for George Strait. And that’s fine. Because we know who we are and we know what works for us. The pressures of the business don’t come into play with what we do. We had our chance, and we did pretty well. We did good enough to be together for 30 years. We’re extremely happy that everything has worked out the way it has, and we can continue to play together.