This week’s news that the great bluegrass-based group the SteelDrivers have changed lead singers after one acclaimed album from the distinctive sound of songwriter Chris Stapleton (who wants to return to a life concentrating on writing) to former Mercury artist Gary Nichols was a little disappointing. Musicians would probably disagree with this, but to me the lead singer is the most distinguishing feature of any band’s identity – and changing the face at the front seems to change the dynamic for better or worse.
One-time hitmakers Lonestar have a new album out soon with a new lead singer, but do not seem to be attracting much attention with it. They in fact started out with two lead singers (John Rich and Richie MacDonald), and when John Rich left to try a solo career (which flopped, leading to his finding success as half of Big & Rich) that did not cause any problems for the band, who went on to release their biggest hit, ‘Amazed’. But when Richie left the band a couple of years ago, the group had already passed its commercial peak. Richie’s solo career has not been particularly successful, and although I haven’t heard Lonestar’s material with their new lead singer yet, I would be surprised if it brought them back to the top.
One band to have gone through various changes of personnel, but for whom real success was associated with the original lead singer was Highway 101, a favorite of mine from the late 80s. Fronted by Paulette Carlson, the group released three fine albums and a string of top 10 hits including several #1s between 1987 and 1990. Paulette then decided she wanted to go it alone, and released a solo album. This proved to be a bad move for her as her new record was a complete flop. The band meanwhile recruited a new lead singer, Nikki Nelson who had a strong, commercial voice, but one with less personality than Paulette’s. The new line-up had a few hits in the arly 90s, but ones which peaked lower on the charts than their earlier material. In 1996 Paulette rejoined the group and they released the appropriately entitled Reunited, but their time had passed and they could not reignite the flame of their glory days. They split again, and the band tried with a third lead singer, with even less success. I understand they are currently performing with Nikki Nelson again. This was a case study where the original combination of lead singer and band was the magical one, and subsequent reinventions just didn’t work.
Sometimes switching the lead singer works out. The Dixie Chicks’ early records featured two lead singers (Laura Lynch and Robin Lee Macy) who were both eventually discarded. It was only when Natalie Maines joined that the band got their major label deal, and proceeded to mass success in the late 90s. Even today, after they have fallen from grace with country radio, the Court Yard Hounds side venture of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the founder members of the Chicks, without Natalie, seems unlikely to attract the same level of support of their most recent album with her. Since the other two own the rights to the name, it is interesting that they decided to drop it for this project.
These last two cases do involve someone with a particularly distinctive voice which served to mark the band out. A similar case involving a less successful group is Trick Pony and its lead singer Heidi Newfield. When Heidi left to go solo, the band initially tried to find a new lead singer, but Heidi’s replacement Aubrey Collins left before any new music could be released, and the surviving band members eventually called it a day. In this case some lead vocals had been taken by one of the guys in the band, but Heidi was the dominating presence at the center of the group.
In previous generations, however, changes of personnel were less disruptive. The Statler Brothers replaced Lew De Witt with Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys have been going since 1945 with many changes. However, these cases did not involve changing a sole lead singer. The pioneering Carter Family consisted of A P Carter, wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle in the 1930s; later on Maybelle continued the group with her daughters. Bluegrass groups seem generally to be formed around an inspirational instrumentalist rather than the singer, and have frequently featured changes in lead vocalist. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have changed personnel over the years, but retained a strong musical identity regardless.
Which of today’s groups could survive a new face at the front?