As I said before, bands often seem to be a hard sell in country music. For every Zac Brown Band or Lady Antebellum out there, there are ten times as many that slip through the cracks. (Anyone know what Cole "Don't Call Me Cold Eggs" Deggs & the Lonesome are up to?) But here in the 21st century, I think the most striking example of a one-hit wonder band has got to be Heartland.
Heartland was founded in 1994 in Huntsville, Alabama by Jason Albert (lead vocals), brothers Craig (rhythm guitar) and Todd Anderson (drums), Chuck Crawford (fiddle), Mike Myerson (lead guitar), and Keith West (bass). They seemed to be largely confined to their home state until 2006, when they signed with the obscure Lofton Creek Records. Now, I live near a small-market station fond of playing artists on smaller labels, so I was well aware of Lofton Creek — and just as aware of the fact that, though the label's acts made many appearances on MusicRow's Country Breakout chart, Lofton Creek was all but a non-entity on Billboard.
Heartland's first chart entry, "I Loved Her First", changed all that. In a mere 16 weeks, it went all the way to the top of Hot Country Songs, wedged right between Josh Turner's delightfully retro "Would You Go with Me" and Dierks Bentley's lyrically potent but melodically stiff "Every Mile a Memory." It seems country had a bit of an experimental phase in 2006, as a look at the #1 hits would tell you: Brad Paisley got Dolly Parton back to #1; Rodney Atkins got his first chart-topper; The Wreckers (a largely one-off between pop singer Michelle Branch and best friend country singer Jessica Harp) got to the top on their first try; Steve Holy finally got himself out of one-hit-wonderland; and Bon Jovi, of all bands, had a #1 country hit! So why not some little-known band on a little-known label?
Indeed, "I Loved Her First" seemed tailor-made for a hit from anyone. The mellifluous waltz melody, soft fiddle, and otherwise mellow production; a tear-in-his-eye vocal from Jason Albert; and and a very sweet look at a father watching his little girl grow up and get married. Likes like "How could that beautiful woman with you / Be the same freckle-faced girl I knew / The one that I read all those fairy tales to / And tucked into bed all those nights?" are full of imagery and emotion, never coming across as sappy. All of the ingredients are there for an extremely relatable, pull-at-your-heartstrings song.
However, the one thing that Heartland seemed to lack was musical identity. While "I Loved Her First" painted them as sensitive family men (basically, latter-day Lonestar minus the treacle and bombast), it really contrasted with the rowdy Southern rockers "Let's Get Dirty", "Too Country", "Boys Like Us"; the "man, we had fun as teenagers" theme of "Freebird in a Firebird"; a "sensitive guy" Jason Sellerss ballad called "You"; a near carbon-copy of Ronnie Milsap's "(There's) No Getting Over Me"; and so on. Heck, on some tracks, it's hard to tell that it's even the same lead singer!
Also not helping was Lofton Creek falling asleep at the wheel. "Dirty" was actually slated to be the second single, but it was swapped out for "Built to Last." Although its recollection of grandparents' 50th anniversary is rife with tender lyrics such as "Here's to the makers of things built to last / Like church bells, and bridges, and baseball on grass", it just seemed too thematically and melodically similar to its predecessor. To the label's credit, they did try calling a mulligan and shipping out "Dirty" anyway, but it was too little, too late.
Country Thunder Records picked up the guys in 2007, with a second album slated for a summer release under the production of Mark Bright. Instead, they put out "Once a Woman Gets a Hold of Your Heart", which was co-written and co-produced by John Rich of Big & Rich. "Slow Down" found them returning to "I Loved Her First" father-daughter territory, just before Country Thunder closed in 2009. They tried again with "Mustache" on Permian Records, a witty song about a woman leaving for a man with a "porn star" mustache. (If you're wondering why I didn't comment on the other two, it's because I couldn't find them anywhere!)
And that's the way it's been with them — nearly impossible to find. Beyond a small note on Allmusic saying that Mike Myerson left in 2009, I couldn't find a single word on what Heartland did after that, until Country Weekly ran an article on them in September 2012. It was there that I discovered that only Albert and Crawford have stayed, with former solo member Chad Austin joining. Also, all three members now trade lead vocals, to allow Albert some vocal rest. The first post-reboot release was "The Sound a Dream Makes", pushed out by James Stroud's R&J Records. And yes, it's a father-daughter song.
What little I've heard from Heartland in the past few years would still hint at a lack of musical identity. But I feel that the touching songs like "I Loved Her First" or "Built to Last" seem to be the ones that leave the most impact, so it only makes sense that they've tried this route so many times. If those songs are still "anonymous", it's in a good way — the kind of anonymity that allows people to slip into the songs comfortably. And if even I, someone who has never been a father, can tear up a little to "The Sound a Dream Makes", then they must be doing it right.