Sawyer Brown’s lasting appeal: Concert at PNG Field the first in a decade

Courtesy photo / From left, Joe Smyth, drums; Shayne Hill, vocals and guitar; Greg “Hobie” Hubbard, keyboard; Jim Scholten, bass guitar; and Mark Miller, lead vocals, make up Sawyer Brown.

Sawyer Brown owes its longevity to its fans, its choice of songs and its work ethic, says band leader Greg “Hobie” Hubbard.

“We tend to give all the credit to the audience,” Hubbard said in a recent telephone interview with the Mirror. “That’s who kept us going from the beginning. We’ve always looked for songs that resonate for us. We may find a great song, but it’s not right for us … and we take working hard seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.

“You can get too full of yourself and your world can get out of kilter.”

For the first time in years, the country music band is coming to Central Pennsylvania later this month.

“We have been there, it’s just been forever,” Hubbard said. “We’re way overdue.”

Sawyer Brown and Phil Vassar are playing Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona on Sept. 23. It’s the first concert at the Curve in 10 years and kicks off next year’s 20th anniversary of the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to bring back a major concert to Peoples Natural Gas Field,” Curve general manager Derek Martin said. “Bringing in Sawyer Brown and Phil Vassar is extra special. Like many in our area, I grew up listening to both artists, and they have given us some of the most popular songs in country music.”

Sawyer Brown has been a staple in the country music scene since the early 1980s, with 23 albums, more than 50 charted singles and multiple awards from the Academy of Country Music, Country Music Television and Country Music Association. Its hit songs include “Some Girls Do,” “Thank God for You,” “Step That Step,” and the George Jones cover, “The Race is On.”

Four of the five band members have been together since 1981, and they took their name from a street in Nashville after moving there. Their guitar player joined in 2004.

Ray Eckenrode, general manager of the Altoona Mirror and its events wing, Altitude Entertainment, which became the promoter of the concert, said he remembers when Sawyer Brown won a television show competition on “Star Search” in 1983.

“It’s cool to see how they’ve evolved into a beloved old school act on the country stage,” he added.

The industry today is nothing like it was in those early days, Hubbard said.

“In the beginning, there were all these statements about us: ‘You’re too young. You move around on the stage too much. Where are the cowboy hats, the boots?'” Hubbard recalled. Country music industry leaders “couldn’t wrap their heads around us playing our music and being who we were. It was left of center. But now, it’s much more of an open spirit, and I hope it gives people the freedom to make the music they want to make, and let the audience decide. That’s one change because there are so many different ways of getting your music out there today.”

But don’t ask Hubbard to define what country music is today. He just believes in making a song the “best it can be … without feeling like you’re being painted into a box.”

“I still find songs I like,” he said. “I am borderline obsessed with music and cannot imagine a day without listening to music and discovering” new songs.

Because the industry has changed so much, Hubbard said he might not be the best source on how a young singer might start out today. But he knows one thing.

“You will figure out how much you want something by what you are willing to go through to get there,” he said. “If you’re not willing to give 110 percent, there is someone who is.”

Hubbard said the band’s fanbase has grown and “is all across the board.”

“Some folks have been with us literally since the beginning,” he said. “But every night (at a concert), we ask people who have never seen us before, and there’s plenty. … It’s beyond gratifying that our music continues to find a home.”

Growing up in Central Florida, Hubbard said he was influenced by a range of music that his parents and the radio played, including Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Rosemary Clooney. Later, it was the Eagles, Carole King, Elton John, the Doobie Brothers and others. Motown music from Smokey Robinson to Gladys Knight remains “some of the coolest records ever,” he said.

“If aliens land on the planet, I hope they find that (Motown) music first,” he added, with a chuckle.

But Hubbard also was influenced by hymns. He played the piano in his Presbyterian Church from junior high until he moved out from home.

“A wide range of music fed into us as we were writing songs,” he said. “We weren’t overthinking it. We just brought all those influences with us.”

What can attendees expect at the Curve concert?

Hubbard said the band will throw in some new, fun stuff, but definitely will play its old hits.

“We are grateful that they want to hear the stuff they know,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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If you go

What: Sawyer Brown and Phil Vassar in concert

When: Sept. 23, gates open an hour before the 6:30 p.m. concert

Where: Peoples Natural Gas Field, Altoona

Admission: $20-$30

Tickets/More info: www.AltoonaCurve.com, 877-99CURVE, or at the field’s ticket office

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