For longtime Diamond Rio fans wondering why their favorite country band decided to record a Christian record, the answer lies in the music. As the lyric above from “The Reason” illustrates, thiswas no casual decision, but a cherished opportunity by a group of believers looking to share their faith and celebrate God’s grace and mercy. “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 lead vocalist Marty 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.”
Making the transition from mainstream country music to a Christian deal with Word Records was not a major stretch for Diamond Rio. The group has long been known for such positive hits as “I Believe,” “Mama Don’t Forget to Pray for Me” and “One More Day.” Formed in 1984, Diamond Rio features Roe, Olander, drummer Brian Prout, keyboardist Dan Truman, bassist Dana Williams
and Gene Johnson on mandolin, guitar and fiddle. The band signed with Arista in 1988 and embarked on one of the most successful careers in country music.
Diamond Rio has released seven studio albums, two greatest hits collections and “A Diamond Rio Christmas: The Star Still Shines,” a 2007 holiday album that marked their debut with Word. The band has earned three platinum albums and won the Country Music Association’s Vocal Group of the Year award four times as well as netting two Academy of Country Music Awards in the top Vocal Group of the Year category. When they debuted in 1991 with the hit “Meet in the Middle,” Diamond Rio became the first group in the history of country music to have a debut single reach No. 1. They continued to place 32 more singles on the Billboard chart, including “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “Norma Jean Riley,” “Beautiful Mess” and “Love a Little Stronger.”
“The fact that we have recorded songs with positive messages is not by accident. We chose to do that,” says Johnson. “We’ve had songs that touched people beyond their ears, and got down into their hearts. When we did ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me,’ we were getting letters from people talking about that song and how it touched them. I remember one specifically from a young girl who had run away from home. She called her mom and dad after hearing ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me.’ After months of being gone, that song caused her to call home. That was a powerful thing. It makes you really stop and think. Songs touch people. Sometimes they can influence people’s lives more than we realize.”
Over the years, Diamond Rio developed a reputation as one of the industry’s most musically inventive outfits, a band of skilled musicians with a dedicated work ethic and the ability to find and record songs that struck a universal chord with audiences. Obviously, they bring that same impressive skill set to their debut in the Christian market, and in recording their Word debut they
could have approached this new chapter in their career with a “business as usual” attitude. However, there was nothing routine about having a chance to fulfill a long held dream—an album that reflected their passion for God and all He’s done in their lives. So instead of turning to Music Row’s top songwriters to find songs that said what they were looking to say, the band opted to write from their own experiences and the result is their most personal collection ever. “When you are talking about faith and your spirituality, your connection to God, it felt less genuine to let other people speak for us,” says Olander. “So we’ve gone to great efforts to try to make sure we’ve written a record that’s from the heart. These songs share what we believe in. This is who we are.”
The band admits there was a sense of freedom in sharing their faith so openly. “There has always been a veil on our Christianity and the veil is off,” says Olander. “We’re revealing who we are. We’re not preaching. We’re not preachers, but we’re saying, ‘This is who I am and I’m proud of it.’ God is working and we’re here for a reason.” Writing and singing about his faith is particularly poignant to Olander, whose father wasn’t a believer and forbid him from even attending church during his youth. Nevertheless he found Christ and became a believer. Faith is something that came more easily to other Rio members who grew up in Christian homes. “I was raised on a small farm outside Sugar Grove, PA,” recalls Johnson. “We attended the Presbyterian church down in Sugar Grove that my mom and dad had been members of for a long, long time. It was the typical little country church with the steeple that’s been a part of that small town forever and ever. I was baptized when I was 12, old enough to know what it meant. There have been times when I look back that I was probably much less of a Christian than I should have been then, but still having that in your upbringing and growing up in church, never really leaves you. It’s there in your makeup and your being and you go back to it.” Prout agrees. He grew up attending church and singing in the choir, but like many young musicians, he went through a time when he wasn’t walking as close to God. Then the father pulled him back. “I was living in Fort Lauderdale, FL and I was in my early 20’s playing in a band,” recalls Prout. “I just kind of felt myself spiraling out of control. I drove by a church and they always had a saying out on the sign out front. A guy was literally just coming down off the ladder from changing the sign and I was sitting there at the red light. The sign said ‘Would the boy that you were, be proud of the man you are?’ In that moment, I knew the answer was no. The timing couldn’t have been any more dramatic, any more impacting.”
Over the years, each member of Diamond Rio has heard God call his name and felt the heavenly father guide and teach them through a myriad of experiences, and it’s those joys and challenges that are reflected in the songs on this new album. Williams wrote the poignant “What Are We Going to Do Now” in the wake of his pastor’s death. Talking to a friend after the funeral, Williams found himself wondering how they would carry on without their beloved preacher, mentor and friend. “He had meant so much to our church,” he says. “What were we going to do now? Then it hit me, we’re going to keep doing what he’s preached for 20 years. It ain’t about him. It’s about God and about us being faithful and us staying on the path and bringing people to the Lord.” Truman and Don Pfrimmer, who penned Diamond Rio’s breakthrough hit, “Meet in the Middle,” contributed “Moments of Heaven.” “It’s always a lot of fun to write with him and he’s such a great lyricist,” says Truman. “I had the music that I really liked and this idea called ‘moments of heaven on earth.’ Whether it’s your wife, your mate, your son or daughter or anyone, there’s good and bad experiences, but there are certain moments that you have with a loved one that are amazing. Those moments are what bond you with them and get you through some of the moments that are lot tougher.”
The songs on the new album reflect not only those moments where we glimpse heaven on earth, they also deal with a particularly difficult season in Diamond Rio’s history that threatened the veteran band’s very existence. “Several years ago, we had a real issue with Marty’s voice,” Williams says quietly. “Some thought he was losing his voice, losing his gift. This record is the story of what we all went through having our point man losing the ability to sing. We just talked about it and decided that we were going to expose that open wound, lay it right out there in the form of music, all the emotions and feelings that he went through along with what we all went through from our side of it, not only his point of view, but from ours too.” The result is a collection of songs that are the most personal Diamond Rio has ever recorded.
Never has the band been more vulnerable as they share the turmoil that surrounded each of them during that dark season and how God renewed them all in the process. Roe admits he was initially in denial that he had a problem with his voice, but one night he called Olander and poured out his heart. “I told him pretty straight forward that I felt like that I had kind of squandered my gift and I referred to a story in the Bible called The Parable of Talents where the master goes off on a trip and he gives to the servants--one he gives five and one he gives two and one he gives one,” says Roe. “The one with five and two, they invest it and they work the talent. Of course, the talent in the Bible was actually money. When the master comes back, the one with the five had increased it to 10 and the one with two has increased it to four and the one with the one comes back and digs it out of the dirt and says, ‘Here’s this one talent.’ You can picture it all dirty, rusty and unused and the master said ‘You know what? I’m going to take that talent and give it to these guys who are actually brave enough to invest and grow their talents.’ “I felt like that. I told Jimmy that story and I felt like maybe I’d squandered my gift and I might just not get it back. There was a lot of prayer and just a lot of soul searching. Then I went to this other vocal coach, Diane Sheets, and she’s a believer. Things started to turn around immediately. I learned to take care of gifts that you have. I can’t be more than what God made me to be and a singer is it.”
As Roe’s voice returned to form, the band felt a renewed sense of purpose, and they knew what they needed to say with this album. Songs about God’s grace and mercy began bubbling through the creative process and singing about surrender never felt more real and right. As they began pouring their experiences into songs, Olander and Roe began co-writing with some of the Christian music community’s top songwriters. Matthew West, who had also gone through vocal problems, collaborates with Olander and Roe on “Wherever I Am” and “This is My Life.” Bernie Herms, who co-wrote the award-winning Casting Crowns song “Praise You in this Storm,” joined Olander and Roe to pen the powerful anthem “God is There.” Acclaimed singer/songwriter Chris Eaton cowrote
“Just Love” and the poignant “Into Your Hands.” “We had a blast with those guys,” Olander says of collaborating with Herms, Eaton and West. “There’s a whole community of incredibly talented people that I’d never crossed paths with. I must tell you that the Christian community has made us feel so welcome. We were a little bit nervous about how we would be received in this market, but as far as the writers and the people in the creative Christian industry, it’s been open arms. I’ve felt very welcomed by all these folks.”
The members of Diamond Rio are grateful for that acceptance. After all, this is the most personal album they’ve ever recorded and opens a new chapter in the band’s impressive career. “It’s so
personal and it’s very cool to lay this out there for all to hear,” says Williams. “It’s professing our faith publicly and it really feels good.”