Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Blue Sky Riders

Blue Sky Riders
By Sarah Skates
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
In Blue Sky Riders, members Gary Burr, Kenny Loggins and Georgia Middleman draw from years of musical experience to create a sum greater than its parts. The result is a showcase of finely crafted songs and exceptional vocal harmonies called Finally Home, self-released on Jan. 29.
 “The sound of the band was a pleasant surprise for me,” said Loggins, whose high-profile career includes writing an imposing catalog of hits for multiple artists and his superstar duo Loggins & Messina. “I knew that Gary and I had a good vocal blend. When I asked him to pick a female singer/songwriter, he suggested (his wife) Georgia, because they also had a good blend. So logically, I knew that the three of us would have a good blend.
“But the first time I was really struck by our sound was early on, when we got together to rehearse in a hotel room,” he continued. “We were working on ‘Help!,‘ the Beatles tune. Our voices instantly meshed and sounded bigger than three people. At this stage of my career, I‘m not sure that I would have been willing to go door-to-door and sing (in search of vocal partners). But every time we sing, I love what we sound like. And I love what we’re writing, so getting together and singing with them is a joy to me.”
Though Middleman had enjoyed plenty of songwriting success, including co-writing Keith Urban’s 2010 chart-topper “I’m In” with Radney Foster, she was a little apprehensive before the trio collaborated for the first time. Loggins’ credits include “Footloose,” “Danger Zone” and the Grammy-winning Song of the Year “What a Fool Believes,” while Burr is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. But, she recalled, “as soon as the three of us sat down to write, all the nerves went out the window. The singing was second nature. I wasn’t thinking about impressing anyone. We were arranging the song from the moment we started writing it. It was effortless. As hard as it is to get a record off the ground, writing and performing for this one was a lot of fun.”
“Kenny was very adamant from the beginning about wanting Blue Sky Riders to be its own entity, like a fourth writer in the room,” Burr said. “That’s what we try to achieve every time we write.” Accordingly, all but two songs on the 15-track album were written by all three members.
One of the first songs they penned was ”Dream.” ”It came out of the idea that somebody told me I was too old to start a band, that my days were over and I should go to pasture,” Loggins recalled. ”I texted Georgia the words ’too old to dream,’ and she turned it into the start of a chorus. In a way, it’s the theme song of the band.”
”It’s a universal theme for a lot of people,” Middleman agreed. ”It doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Inspirational themes animate the entire album of Country-rooted, pop-leaning songs. ”Little Victories,” born from a melody that Loggins started years ago with Richard Marx, is about finding hope in small things during difficult times. And ”Feelin’ Brave” drives its message from the top, with bagpipes intensifying the Celtic-flavored intro.
The trio had already wrapped the album when they wrote ”Just Say Yes.” Loggins admits to having struggled to find the same engagement with Blue Sky Riders that he had felt working solo. But immediately, he as well as Burr and Middleman knew that the project wouldn’t be complete without this track. ”I felt very strongly that this was the missing piece that would bring my part of the puzzle to the record,” Loggins remembered. ”It helped me take my voice where I wanted.”
Loggins’ idea of the ”fourth writer” also helped in the process of blending three fully formed individual artists into a single creative force. ”It’s tough when you start a band with everybody at a certain level, because you’re not used to asking everyone’s opinions,” Burr said. ”We all trust our own opinion the most. I’d tell other people trying to start a band of this ilk to stop trying to win and start trying to think of what will make the band win. You have to check your ego at the door because you’re going to find out it’s an all-star game and you have to raise your level and work for the band as a whole.”
”A band is a unit of people that get along, respect each other and like each other, and each member contributes ideas and respects everyone else’s ideas,” Loggins added. ”In many bands, you have a leader who decides what idea flies. In this case, I defer that and I know they do too. The majority doesn’t rule in writing. We keep going until all three of us are happy. That’s one of the things I like about the band. That way, no one of us ever feels overwhelmed by the other dynamic personalities. That’s where the trust comes in. There’s a dynamic tension creatively, but it’s what we need to get the best ideas out on the table. When we are writing and an idea comes out, we keep going until we all resonate to it.”
”This collaboration is really fun because we love what everybody does individually,” Middleman noted. ”We respect each other and listen to each other. It’s not about me. It’s about what the project needs. I know I can come in with an idea and we have three minds to sort it out. If one of us says that something doesn’t feel right, we take those comments seriously. There has to be room for negotiation every step of the way. We all have strong opinions, but when something is not working, we hash it out. It’s tough, but every time we get through one of those moments, I think, ’Wow, this is a great band!’“
In keeping with their hands-on work ethic, the band co-produced Finally Home with Peter Asher, whose résumé includes work with Loggins, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. “Working with him previously, I knew he had a steady, clear head and a strong internal compass and would be able to handle strong opinions like ours,” Loggins said.
Sessions were divided between Nashville, where Burr and Middleman live, and Loggins’ hometown Santa Barbara. “We wanted to explore his arena and our arena,” Burr noted. “What I love about the record is that we made a conscious decision for every track to sound like a different band with the same voices. One of my favorite records is (the Beatles‘) Revolver, and you can’t tell what the next song is going to be by listening to the one before it. Each one has different instrumentation and a different style. It isn’t so much that the sound of Blue Sky Riders is a surprise to me, it’s that every track is a surprise to me.”
Loggins and Burr list the Beatles as a major influence, while Middleman grew up at the intersection of classic Country and iconic pop, listening to Merle Haggard, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, along with Burt Bacharach, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor and Carole King. These varied backgrounds illuminate BSR’s songwriting process. “We allow ourselves to go places that aren’t stuck in one genre,” said Loggins. “I wanted to try something challenging, go somewhere new musically — and it’s more invigorating.”
In fact, Blue Sky Riders has been a rejuvenating experience for all three members. “What’s great for me,” Burr explained, “is that instead of being a songwriter-for-hire, where you throw a thousand songs against the wall and hope one sticks, is in the cocktail hour of my life to be able to write 15 songs a year and know that 15 songs will get recorded because we’re doing it.”
“When I came to Nashville, I was a waitress,” Middleman added. “I had to adhere to the silent rules and politics (of the music business) to get a certain level of success as a songwriter. But now Gary and I know that success means saying no to things. I don’t have to do anything that doesn’t feel right at this point in my life, because I don’t need it that badly, like I did when I first got to town. Today it has to be something fun, something that I love and makes sense. What we’re doing is a lot of challenging work, but it’s also freeing because we don’t have to do it.”
On the Web: BlueSkyRidersBand.com
On Twitter: @GaryBurr, @KennyLoggins
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