Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Sawyer Brown, “The Dirt Road”

“The Dirt Road”

Sawyer Brown

Written by Gregg Hubbard and Mark Miller

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

January 24, 1992

An eighties band finds their artistic voice in the nineties.

The Road to No. 1

Sawyer Brown started as the backing band for country musician Don King, who had some moderate success on the country charts in the seventies and early eighties.   They banded together when King retired from touring, and were originally called Savanna.  A last minute name change once they were in Nashville led them to Sawyer Brown, which they took from a road they found in the phone book.

They achieved national attention competing on Star Search, winning the Vocal Group prize in the first season of the series.  (Brad Garrett, of Everybody Loves Raymond fame, won Comedy the same year.)  The victory included a recording contract, and by 1984, the band was releasing its first album on Capitol Records.

They found early success at country radio, with three top five hits from their first two albums, including the No. 1 hit, “Step That Step.”  They won the CMA Horizon Award in 1985, and quickly became a popular live act on the road.  Radio success was inconsistent as the decade wore on, though they returned to the top five with “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” in 1987 and “The Race is On” in 1989.

Their reputation as a talent show novelty act dogged them, despite their performance chops and them being one of the only country bands to actually play on their own records.  But they earned a new credibility when their label took a chance on “The Walk,” a powerful ballad written by lead singer Mark Miller.  It revitalized their Buick album, reaching No. 2 after the first two singles had barely charted.

It was included as a bonus track on their next studio album, which was the first to apply the lessons learned from their latest hit.

The No. 1

“The Dirt Road” is also written by Miller, and the band is further complemented by the new producer at the helm, Mac McAnally, who was one of their most important collaborators during their critical and commercial peak.

It’s very much nineties Sawyer Brown.  The personality is still there, but there’s a substance to the material and a more organic approach to the production. Miller has a distinctive and expressive vocal style, and he is fully believable as he delivers one of the better country metaphors of its day, comparing life on easy street to the reliable lessons learned on “the dirt road.”

It isn’t even one of the best singles from their excellent nineties run, but it’s still an absolute gem, featuring winning contributions from Earl Scruggs.

The Road From No. 1

Sawyer Brown kicked off a lengthy run of top ten singles with “The Walk,” and they’ll be featured three more times in this series, including with their next release.

“The Dirt Road” gets a B+.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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  1. This is a good song, but I cannot believe “The Walk” was not number one! It’s another one of those songs that solicits an emotional response in me and my favorite single of theirs.

  2. I’m just thankful it was released at all! A third single after two singles barely chart doesn’t usually happen, let alone get to No. 2. It saved their career. But I was hoping it had gotten to No. 1 on RR, too!

    Sawyer Brown was my favorite band of this time period. My favorite single of theirs from this era didn’t get to No. 1 either.

  3. Go back and listen to some of Sawyer Brown’s earlier singles like ‘Heart Don’t Fail Now” and “Used to Blue,” and you will hear Mark Miller always had a commanding, non-traditional voice. The production from their early albums was just so schlock-y and poppy. The looser more acoustic production that came with their 90’s material went a long way toward making sure their “bubble gum- country” moniker wouldn’t stick forever. This sonic evolution came without the band losing their pluck and personality. Nobody else sounded like Sawyer Brown at the time. A much maligned band that is far better than they often got credit for.

    People started taking notice after this worthy single.

  4. Yet another song I never knew went number one, but I’m pleasantly surprised it did! This has always been another one of my all time favorites from the early 90’s, and another one that brings back really good memories. I’ve always loved the rootsy production on this one with lots of dobro and Earl Scruggs’ banjo picking featured throughout. It’s a perfect fit for the lyrics and message of the song. Teaming up with Mac McAnally has to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to Sawyer Brown, and it resulted in a lot of great music they made throughout the decade, especially the early 90’s. I love just about all the albums they released in the 90’s, as well.

    Once again, the first time I ever heard this song on the radio was in late 1991 when I got it on tape. On part of the tape, we recorded a Duane Eddy album from my parents’ record collection while the rest of it was country radio, of course. Side A of that tape also includes the first time I ever recorded Alabama’s “Then Again,” along with “Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses” by Kathy Mattea, “Don’t Waste It On The Blues” by Gene Watson, “Down At The Twist and Shout” by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and then this song at the end. We were still living in our old house, and both my dad and my step dad were downstairs with me while I was recording that night. I remember my dad telling me he liked the Sawyer Brown song when it came on, and mentioned the video. Side B of the tape includes Brooks & Dunn’s “My Next Broken Heart” and the other songs I mentioned in that thread. It’s actually one of my favorite tapes from that time period that brings back so many good memories, and I’ve been listening to it again these last few nights. It still sounds amazingly good for a tape turning 30! This song also made it on to a tape from early ’92 and another from early ’93.

    After we moved to Dad’s house in early ’92 was when I got to see the video a lot on CMT. To this day, whenever I hear this song or even think about it, the image of the guy walking down the dirt road in his black jacket and shades always pops in my mind. The song also remained as one of my dad’s favorites, and he always mentioned the video whenever it came on.

    I’m also with y’all on “The Walk.” It’s yet another very moving, emotional song, and I’m also surprised it never went number one since it seems to be one of their most well known ones from their 90’s run. I remember hearing it a lot in late ’91 and even as a steady recurrent for the rest of the decade.

  5. I have to be honest…I find 80’s Sawyer Brown almost the equivalent of Florida Georgia Line in terms of quality, for the most part. It just has the same “bubble-gum” mentality to me, and while there were a couple of ballads that Peter mentioned…my mind just goes towards the up-tempo frothy stuff. But, unlike Florida Georgia Line…some of those videos are absolute gold if you’re looking for something to laugh at. “Step That Step”, “Shakin”, “Betty’s Been Bad”…that weird video they did with Joe Bonsall from the Oak Ridge Boys…there is some shear gold in that videography. Anytime I think of their work from that time period, I just see Mark Miller doing his bizarre dancing and everyone else over-enthusiastically playing their instruments.

    However, I do give them credit for hooking up with Mac McNally and changing things up. I still never loved most of their stuff, just b/c I never cared for Mark Miller’s voice…it’s an aesthetic thing, and he just never clicked with me. But, “The Dirt Road” and “The Walk” are definitely a step up in quality, and even the uptempo stuff got a little more intelligent. They also did a couple of songs that I really do enjoy in “Cafe on the Corner” and “All These Years”. So, the FGL comparisons…(which is probably one of the worst insults I can give)…can go away in my mind.

  6. In the late 80s/early 90s (when I was 10-12 years old), my mom had a handful of country cassettes that she listened to a lot and that I still have fond memories of. One of them was Sawyer Brown’s “The Boys are Back.” Listening to this tape made me a fan of theirs although I’m not as familiar with their 80s catalogue as their 90s. I had no idea that they were a part of Star Search.

    Anyways, this is a really good song!

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