When six musicians from varying backgrounds came together in 1989 to form Diamond Rio, few envisioned the success that would soon come to the band.
There was rock drummer (Brian Prout), a bluegrass mandolin player (Gene Johnson) and a jazz piano player (Dan Truman). Marty Roe (vocals/guitar), Jimmy Olander (lead guitar) and Dana Williams (bass) completed the sextet.
But they all happened to be in Nashville, Tenn., which, as it turns out, was the right place to be at the right time.
“It was just the luck of the draw,” Johnson said. “We got the right six together, but nobody would have intentionally put the six of us together.”
Instead, the band’s birth was organic. A member of the Tennessee River Boys (which was co-founded in 1982 by a then-unknown singer named Ty Herndon), Olander called Johnson — who was working regularly as a bluegrass mandolinist — to offer him a gig with the band. A week later, an informal jam session took place at Prout’s place (Herndon had left the band by this time).
“We recognized what we had as soon as we started playing together,” Johnson said. “We all knew we had something and needed to keep it going.”
After finishing its commitments as the Tennessee River Boys, the band was signed by Arista Nashville, changed its name to Diamond Rio and in 1991 released its self-titled debut album. That contained the hit, “Meet in the Middle,” which became the first debut single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Thus began a run that saw Diamond Rio land 32 singles, including five No. 1 songs, on the Billboard country charts through 2006. Joining “Meet in the Middle” as a No. 1 hit were “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “One More Day,” “Beautiful Mess” and “I Believe.”
A great ride
Now, 25 years after the release of its debut album, Diamond Rio will bring its catalog of hits at 8 p.m. June 3 to the Silver Legacy Resort Casino’s Grande Exposition Hall. The show is a fundraiser to benefit the Jason Eberle DDS Memorial Fund.
“It’s been a miraculous ride,” Johnson said of the band’s success. “I’m not sure anybody can explain it. It’s just happened to work out this way.”
For about 15 years, the band was a force on the country charts. But by 2006, the hit parade slowed to a halt. How does such a thing happen?
“That’s kind of a record label and radio thing,” Johnson said. “They’re always looking for the newest, biggest thing. Once you become the act that’s been around a long time, the importance of playing your music sort of slips away. It certainly wasn’t up to us.”
Disappointed but not discouraged, Diamond Rio forged ahead.
“It hurts when you can’t get radio play that you feel you should still have,” Johnson said. “I remember talking with Merle Haggard back in ’91, and he was saying he couldn’t get on the radio anymore. So, you learn pretty quickly that this is what happens. You’re going to have your successful period and then pretty quickly drop away.
“But that doesn’t affect the people who come to our shows. We still have huge amounts of fans that love our music and want to hear everything we’re willing to play for them. We have fans singing along with every word of our music. That kind of positive feedback keeps you out there doing it.”
The bucket list
With limited access to radio, Diamond Rio turned its attention to other projects.
“We had a bucket list of things we wanted to do,” Johnson said. “We had wanted for a long time to do a Christmas album, so we did it on our own and shopped it around.”
The album, “A Diamond Rio Christmas: The Star Still Shines,” was picked up by Word Records, a Christian music label in Nashville. That led to the 2009 release of the band’s first and only Christian album, “The Reason.” That earned the band three Dove nominations for Song of the Year (“God Is There”), Country Song of the Year (“The Reason”) and Country Album of the Year.
It also earned Diamond Rio a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album. It was the band’s first Grammy after 13 nominations.
“It was great to actually finally win one,” Johnson said, laughing. “That was nice.”
‘Essential Diamond Rio’
In 2014, the band released an album of live performances, “Diamond Rio Live,” on its own Rio Hot Records label. In 2015, the band released “I Made It,” its first all-country studio album in 13 years. While the album hasn’t received the radio airplay it might have when the band was young, Johnson said the group is proud of its effort.
“We think it stands up to all our other albums,” Johnson said. “We’re very proud of it. We feel it’s essential Diamond Rio.”
The band is looking forward to returning to the studio and releasing a new country album in 2017, Johnson said. In the meantime, it’s playing about 75 shows a year and playing as many hits for its fans as it can.
“That’s the main reason we’re still together,” he said. “We love playing the shows. As long as we love doing the shows and get the response from the audience the makes it fun, we’ll keep on going.”