Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe Looks Back On A Beautiful Mess
Diamond Rio, the hit-making country band made up of Gene Johnson (mandolin, guitar, fiddle, tenor vocals), Jimmy Olander (lead guitar, Dobro, Danelectro, banjo), Brian Prout (drums), Marty Roe (lead vocals), Dan Truman (keyboards, organ, synthesizer), and Dana Williams (bass guitar, baritone vocals), came to a crossroads in 2007. Without a record deal, and with a lead singer whose voice was betraying him, the future of the 13-time GRAMMY nominees, two-time ACM Top Vocal Group and four-time CMA Vocal Group of the Year was up in the air.
After charting 32 singles, including five #1s, Diamond Rio was stuck.
For Roe, it took a “Beautiful Mess” to quite literally save his career. This past spring, Roe took a moment and shared a testimony at the American Association of Christian Counselors about his trials the two years prior. In that speech, he relayed that Diamond Rio had felt like they had gotten a little off-track as a band. To make matters worse, he had started having serious vocal problems and went to a series of vocal coaches, none of whom could explain the problem. More importantly, none could fix it. Roe finally went to a Christian vocal coach, and the first few sessions they just spent time talking and praying. The rest of the band did the same. Like magic, his voice began healing.
This September, Diamond Rio shares that testimony with a collection of country infused Christian songs on a brand new album called The Reason. This was no casual decision, but a pragmatic move by a group of believers looking to share their faith.
“It was no mistake that we wrote a song called ‘The Reason’ and it exactly answers the question,” Jimmy Olander says. “It’s the reason why we’re here. It’s our story.”
“We’re all believers. We always have been,” adds Roe. “I think a lot of our songs reflected that part of who we are, but this was different to actually able to say in a stronger voice what our hearts are about.”
With a new record, a new genre and a companion book telling the band’s story (called, appropriately, A Beautiful Mess–The Diamond Rio Story), Marty Roe had a chance to sit down with The 9513 for an exclusive interview.
KEN MORTON, JR: I understand your career was a little predestined to be in country music with your parents giving you a specific namesake.
MARTY ROE: My father was a picker and he played all over back in the 50’s in Kentucky. He was stationed on a base during the Korean conflict and he was introduced to a guy on the radio there in New Mexico or San Antonio named Marty Robbins. And by the time he got married, this guy named Marty started having some hits. I was born in 1960 and that’s when “El Paso” was a big hit, so he named me after Marty Robbins. My whole family picked and sang. There was never a time where music wasn’t a major part of our lives.
KMJ: With Diamond Rio, you guys have been together 20 years and you’re just unveiling The Reason. Why the move from country to inspirational?
ROE: Ask God. Honestly, I do believe it was a God thing. We all do at this point. I think with a lot of God things, it took us awhile to get with the program. We parted ways with Arista Records about three years ago. At that point in time, we wished that it hadn’t of happened. We were torn because it made us a little bit excited to have some opportunities to do some different things. We were very fortunate to have been very current up until that point. And in country music, we still had a huge following. With new technologies and the internet and stuff, we were definitely interested in doing some independent projects. Jimmy (Olander) had just finished building a house and had a real nice studio put in it. So we went in there and just started testing out his studio and recording and stuff. We actually started cutting some songs that we had kept over the years that for whatever reason never made albums. Tracks that didn’t fit the format or whatever. But we still loved them and held on to them. We each own our little collections of great songs.
We ended up recording those and it was getting close to Christmas so we said, “Lets all cut a Christmas record!” It was a freeing feeling that we had no one else to answer to. So that’s what we did. We got on iTunes and found our favorite tunes. Somebody would suggest the “Christmas Song” or something. So we just started recording and we finished a Christmas album. We were pretty much finished and it turned out brilliant. It was so much fun–some of the most fun any of us had recording a record. Word Records got wind of what we were doing. I’m sure our manager had something to do with that. They showed an interest in distributing in it. They liked it very much. The “powers to be” were old friends of ours and were big fans of what we had done. They felt that it wouldn’t be a stretch for us to record a Christian project, too. So when we did the deal for the Christmas record, part of it was they wanted us to do a Christian record. It started out that we could do some of our “I Believe” and “One More Day” type songs and stuff and that would work. Shortly after we got into the deal, we were listening to songs. It’s a long process. We have mostly cut outside songwriters to find songs we love. They need to speak to us and hopefully then speak to our audience. We had kind of got out of the habit for those 15 years of doing it that way. But after 7 or 8 months of not finding anything, we hadn’t even hardly got started at all. They said that there was going to be a lot of people wondering why we were here at this point.
It came to Jimmy in our meeting that we had a story to tell. And God has been very active in our career and personal lives. We’re believers. But to do that would mean that we would need to break our mold and tell our own story in our own words. Part of that would be some of my struggles with my voice. And also the band’s struggles having to deal with that. So we felt that we would tell that story ourselves. And I told Jimmy that night that God had put us in this spot for a purpose and that we had finally just now figured out what we wanted to say. That, in a nutshell, is how this experience of being at a point of surrender and practically broken and God revealing to us that he is God and that we’re here for his purposes and not our own. The gifts that we’ve been given are for him and to glorify him. Intellectually, I think I would have always said that but my actions didn’t always demonstrate that. That was how it was brought to a point of hopelessness and my surrender to this project. The instance that the realization came about, there was a door open. I hate to throw the term around loosely, but had a miraculous turnaround for me and the whole band. It’s been a real strong couple of years for us.
KMJ: While the message may be different on this album, do you think it’s different from previous Diamond Rio albums musically?
ROE: Yes, I do. Because of this new genre, we thought there might be a feeling of “you’re not one of us.” We might be held to a different standard than some of the other Christian acts. We were hearing fiddles and steel guitars on some of the Christian acts that we were listening to. I kind of listened to Christian music off and on throughout my whole life. And I sang lots of that material in church, of course. But I got engrossed in listening to just that. And after listening to styles and the kind of music, we tried to make an attempt to embrace what’s happening on Christian radio.
But it was funny. I was writing with Mike Weaver and Mike said, “This is the only style of music that is separated by subject matter and not by the style of music.” I did discover that. There are multiple styles of influences and styles that are accepted on Christian radio. The subject matter is the constant. So I think our country music will hear a slight musical departure. Not that they’re not going to recognize us by any means. But it is a little more pop sounding production. Jimmy’s guitar sounds totally different from our country radio songs. But I think with the progression of country music these days, it would work on country radio pretty well. I think even the subject matter would work. Country music has always been accepting of faith-based music. Songs like “I Believe” and “Jesus Take The Wheel.” Country music fans are definitely believing type of folks. Stereotypes don’t always portray them that way. But we try to be real positive when we were in country music and I don’t think our fans will find this out of character. Most of them will probably ask why this took so long.
It’s been very well received in our country shows. We play a couple of these every single night. When we tell them that we have our Christian record coming out, it gets a large response. That’s what we discovered. We’ll be doing more of the new material in front of some of our fans. We didn’t want to straddle the fence on this. We wanted to embrace the Christian project as a whole. I don’t know where it will carry us in the future. For a long time, when you’re young, you have a death grip on your career. You want to take it where you think it should go and where you want it to go. We’re not there anymore. We’re trying to ride the wave that God has sent to guide us.
KMJ: I know you have a new autobiography, called A Beautiful Mess, that’s coming out at the same time as this new CD. Why did you decide to write a book as a companion piece?
ROE: We’d only decided when the book publisher caught wind that we were doing this project. Some of them go to church with me and that’s the only way I can think of that they figured out what we were doing. They pitched an idea to do an autobiography and we were excited to explain what and why we were doing. This CD took much longer than anticipated to put out and it wasn’t our intent for them to come out at the same time. It talks about the last 20 years with the band, how the band started and a lot of embarrassing photographs of big hair. Each guy gets his own chapter to talk about their lives before Diamond Rio and what brought them to Nashville and to the band. But also, we felt we needed to tell the stories behind The Reason. We needed to tell the story of my vocal problems and how God’s role with that brought us to this point of making this CD. The book explains that journey.
It definitely goes hand in hand now. I would like to say that we had planned it all coming out at the same time, but again, it’s pretty much a God thing. Nothing has ever come together like that for us. We’ve never been able to pull out the whole package like that in our career, but this time the little things and timing have fallen in so well.
KMJ: What has been being a member of the Grand Ole Opry meant to your guys over the years?
ROE: I get asked often what the highlight of my career is, and it’s hard to pick out one thing. But that is definitely the thing that most got to me and I know the guys feel the same way. Just to be able to be able to play on the Opry the first time was amazing. And each time you get to go play out there, you have to pinch yourself to be able to hang around with the legends. To be able to say that Porter was a friend of mine and Little Jimmy Dickens is a friend of mine is so cool. To be included in with that amazing list of artists that have come before me that my father and I would listen to growing up on the radio late at night is so special. Actually, he would usually fall asleep on the couch and I would be the one who would stay up and night and listen to the whole thing. He was always waiting for Marty Robbins to do the last spot. To walk on that stage and hear that Diamond Rio were the 71st members of the Grand Ole Opry–it’s still a little bit surreal. Every single time, it’s a great experience being mentioned along with all of those great stars.
KMJ: What is your next chapter, do you foresee any future country music releases? Or is that road unknown at this point?
ROE: Once again, you have to ask God. I have to say, I don’t exactly know. We get to do lots of different things now. It’s kind of fun being able to do anything. We’ve talked a long time about doing a bluegrass project and we might actually decide to write all of it. We’ve got friends of ours that we can write with. We’ve talked about doing a classic country and do some of our favorite old-time country songs. But to be honest with you, at this point we’re following God’s lead. At this point, we’re doing our due diligence and get the word out on this project. We’ll be touring, getting the word out. If we’re blessed with a good amount of success, there will be a push to do another project like this one. And I wouldn’t at all be opposed to that. We were called to do this. We are at the point of our careers to do this. We’ve always been about chasing that next big hit and we’re not there anymore. We’d love to have a hit and be able to perpetuate the ability of being able to play music for a living. But it’s really not our focus at this point. I can’t tell you that we’ve made a decision about any of that kind of stuff, we’re just trying to pay attention to what the good Lord tells us to do.
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