As much country as I was listening to in 1995, I have to wonder just how a group like 4 Runner escaped my grasp. There are plenty more acts that I remember — from James House to Lari White to Rick Trevino to The Mavericks, and all these other names that I haven't heard a DJ say in nearly 18 years now — but 4 Runner sits on the very edge of my memory, their lone hit having stayed dormant in my memory banks until I finally scored a recording of it a few years back. And I'm at a loss as to how these guys slipped through my hands, because they seem way too talented to be forgotten.
4 Runner is yet another group whose members were not new to town: Craig Morris (lead vocals) had worked with Marie Osmond and Ronnie McDowell, wrote Reba McEntire's "If I Had Only Known," and was a backing vocalist on TNN's Nashville Now; Billy Crittenden (baritone) had sung backing vocals for Tanya Tucker, and co-wrote Diamond Rio's "Love a Little Stronger"; Jim Chapman (bass) had won a Dove Award for writing The Cathedral Quartet's "I Can See the Hand" (not to mention that he is the brother-in-law of CCM favorite Steven Curtis Chapman); and Lee Hilliard (tenor) had sung backup for Loretta Lynn and Vern Gosdin. Hilliard and Crittnden had decided since the 1980s that they wanted to form a vocal quartet in the style of The Oak Ridge Boys, and by 1993, all four members were in place.
And this new but already seasoned quartet started off very strongly with "Cain's Blood," a tune penned by country-pop veteran Michael Johnson and Jack Sundrud of the country-rock group Poco. The song's simple but profound lyrics ("Half of my blood is Cain's blood / Half of my blood is Abel's / One eye looks to Heaven / One eye looks for trouble…") used a familiar Biblical image to paint an image of a man struggling between good and evil at every turn. Adding the atmospheric production (reverberating piano, electric guitar, even a vibraslap!), along with a sturdy melody and, in particular, the four men's impeccable harmonies, and the result was a true standout in any generation. Not unlike Josh Turner's equally stellar "Long Black Train" eight years later, the song had a strong undercurrent of early 20th-century gospel with enough of a modern edge to still fit in on radio. At the same time, it evoked an earthier, less polished version of The Oak Ridge Boys with the prominent use of four-part harmony — a point driven home by many critics and music writers in this timespan. (No doubt they were pining for the Oaks, whose momentum had come to a screeching halt after the fine "Lucky Moon" in 1991, to have a comeback.)
That said, as I've pointed out before, 1995 was a year of change. It was a year flooded with "hat acts" that could hardly be discerned (Ken Mellons, Jeff Carson, Rhett Akins, Rick Trevino), even if a few of them (Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney) did become better with age. It was a year that finally broke through Shania Twain, who led the forefront on a shift back to a more pop-skewing demographic after the neotraditionalist boom of the early 90s. It was also a bad time for groups, as Little Texas somehow came to a screeching halt (as did the equally hard-rocking but smarter Confederate Railroad), The Mavericks continued to get accolades far exceeding their chart peaks, Shenandoah barely eked out one last Top 10er with an assist from Alison Krauss, and Blackhawk would continue to chug along nicely without (sadly) ever ascending to A-level. So with bands not being "in" in 1995, 4 Runner did well to get anywhere with "Cain's Blood," much less a respectable #26. On top of that, the single "bubbled under" the Hot 100 (one of the only songs between "Achy Breaky Heart" and Shania to get within striking distance of that chart), and the album sold over 200,000 copies on the heels of that single alone — so while not a "hit" in the sense of going Top 10, the song clearly resonated with fans.
However, one more strike against the band was their label, Polydor Nashville. Restructuring had generally blunted any chance at further hits, although three more singles were released from the album: the chugging "A Heart with 4 Wheel Drive," the quick heartbreak tune "Home Alone," and "Ripples," a smart look at small-town gossip. None of these songs made much of an impact on the U.S. country charts, although "4 Wheel" went Top 20 in Canada. Furthermore, Billy Simon replaced Billy Crittenden on baritone vocals just as the group moved to A&M Nashville, where they released "That Was Him (This Is Now)." Written by a then-mostly-unknown Keith Urban (yes, that Keith Urban), the song was as solid as anything off their first album, even if the harmonies were a bit more downplayed. (As a side note, I would like to thank Craig Morris himself for sending me an MP3 of this very hard-to-find song, and verifying that Simon was indeed a member.) However, any hopes of momentum were quickly dashed when A&M Nashville was merged into Mercury Nashville, with only Toby Keith successfully making the transition to the parent company. By comparison, 4 Runner had "That Was Him" quickly cut off, and their second album (One for the Ages) was canned. The four members went their separate ways.
Chapman, Hilliard, and Morris reunited in 2002, with Michael Lusk becoming the third baritone vocalist of the group. The newly re-established 4 Runner sent out an absolutely beautiful a cappella rendition of "What Child Is This?", followed by a self-released album titled Getaway Car a year later. The album included three singles: the title track, later a Top 40 hit for the short-lived family act The Jenkins (and later still, a minor hit for Hall & Oates); "Forrest County Line," which spent a single week at #59; and "Ragged Angel." The album also included a cover of James Taylor's "Shower the People," a cover of "Love a Little Stronger," a re-recording of "House at the End of the Road" from their debut, and "God, Family & Country," which was also cut by Craig Morgan (with 4 Runner backing him, no less) on his breakthrough album I Love It. Another single, the inspirational "We Will Hope with You," was also recorded but never put on an album, and 4 Runner broke up once more. According to comments on YouTube, Morris, Hilliard, and Simon still sing backup for Loretta Lynn, while Chapman continues his pre-4 Runner job as an art teacher. (And they still sing "The House at the End of the Road" on tour, too.)
4 Runner strikes me as an act who had the complete package: a distinct sound, experience, good songs, and songwriting chops. Pretty much the only missing ingredient was a solid label — outside Toby Keith, Polydor never really seemed to have any sort of follow-through with any of their artists (when's the last time anyone heard of Shane Sutton?), and the move to the even less successful A&M Nashville division didn't help. As heavily as the scales were tipping back towards pop-country in 1995, I still think that 4 Runner could've been at the least, one of those acts who has a consistently chugging-along chart presence with lots of fans and steady sales. Sure, they might never have come across another song as amazing as "Cain's Blood," but at least that song still made for a wonderful introduction to a group that, in my opinion, deserved much better.