Country music in the 1980's offered some of the same arguments many types of country music fans still have today. What is and is not "country"? Can pop-country and traditional country coexist peacefully on one radio dial? Can the sheen of Kenny Rogers' gloriously manicured beard ever be more powerful than the grand, lengthy beauty of Crystal Gayle's legendary locks? We really haven't ever truly answered these highly urgent questions, because there really isn't a right answer.
Few bands of the 1980's and 1990's represented the peaceful co-mingling of modern pop and established country sounds better than Restless Heart. Tonight they'll be passing through North Texas to play the Arlington Music Hall.
Led by Larry Stewart and his distinctive, ranging croon that was homespun, yet polished enough to please the masses, Restless Heart was arguably the hardest-hitting group chart force between 1985 and 1993, aside from the bearded bros of Alabama. Racking up 21 Top 40 Billboard Country hits in that time, including a run of six-consecutive No. 1 smash hits, Stewart and crew drew ears from both country and pop-rock audiences as a less-Californian version of the Eagles, for better or worse.
Like many of the most successful acts of the late 1980s, the fandom has died down a bit and the corporate radio structure that once helped boost them to stardom has long since turned its back on them. But thanks to indelible, truly well-made tunes, such as the damn-near iconic "Bluest Eyes in Texas" and the crossover hit "When She Cries," Restless Heart still has a clearly defined role in the hearts and playlists of country music lovers. We spoke to Stewart ahead of the band's Arlington appearance.
DC9 at Night: I once read that in the late 1980's and very early 90's that any song with "Texas" in the title was a surefire hit for a band. Do you recall any such sentiment among you or your peers, even jokingly?
Stewart: Well, at the time, we couldn't get arrested in Texas. This contemporary sounding pop-rock-country band with mullets trying to make it in Texas wasn't working too well. Then our producer Tim Dubois and a couple of his friends, who later became Blackhawk , wrote the song. When we heard it, it was fresh, well-written and the perfect style for Restless Heart. All the elements were there and we couldn't wait to release it. It was a huge hit all across America and we worked Texas three or four months a year for a long time. We still love coming to Texas. We have so many friends and fans we always look forward to seeing.
One of Restless Heart's greatest traits are the harmonies that lift up so many of your songs. Do you feel harmonies are now a thing of the past in modern country music?
I really haven't thought about it, but you may have a point, at least for the immediate playlist across country radio. Musical styles come and go all the time. Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town still are as good vocally as anyone has ever been. It's the bands with harmonies that seem to be down in numbers. The Zac Brown Band is great, and hopefully, more great bands are waiting in the wings.
Critics of modern country or top 40 radio often bemoan its continued evolution into a more rock-based terrain. Restless Heart is considered by many to be a "pop country" group. Hasn't country music, especially radio-friendly styles, always been an evolving creature?
No doubt! Many traditionalists in the establishment of country music on [the row] truly hated what we brought to the table back in the '80s and '90s... Nothing sounded the same, and radio was so open to new stuff back then. We were contemporary, which scared people. Now we are considered mainstream country. So yes, who are we to bemoan the hottest genre on the planet, at least at the top. Everything changes. Always has, always will.
So, In your opinion, will the argument over "what is country and what isn't country" ever die?
No. In fact, if it does die, that will mean it won't grow. I think it's healthy, as long as the quality is in there somewhere. Sometimes it isn't. But, mostly it is or it comes back to that. Everyone once in a while needs to hear a great song.
You had success as a solo artist. What drew you back into Restless Heart?
The solo career lasted only a few albums and then I tried some new stuff, raised and coached my kids in sports. Then it seemed time to put everyone back together to see what might happen. That was 12 years ago, and we still love what we do. We used to be uncomfortable when the crowd didn't scream. I do have to say, some nights were off-the-chart crazy in those arenas and we loved it. Silly young musicians [laughs]. Now, it's cool to have an audience that listens, claps and sings along. It's so much more relaxed.