A little more than 20 years ago, Diamond Rio notched an impressive first in the country music industry when the group's debut single, "Meet in the Middle," rose to No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, the first time a debut single had ever charted so high. In 2012, not much has changed for the smooth-rockin' sextet, which will perform on Monday night at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre in Orem. The hits have kept on coming, and the same six guys have been playing them from the start.
That level of lineup longevity is unusual, if not unprecedented. Gene Johnson, who handles mandolin, guitar, fiddle and "high tenor" vocals for the group, said that, while the band members have worked hard to cooperate and stick together, he also doesn't feel like they've ever been very much at odds with each other.
"I think we were just probably extremely lucky in the draw there, getting six people who had the same goals," Johnson said. "We are a six-person partnership. We're all very equal in our thoughts and in our power within the band." At 63, Johnson is several years older than his bandmates, but said that the other guys don't treat him like a big brother, or elder statesman. "Maybe the weird uncle," he said.
Diamond Rio has a special connection to Utah: Keyboardist Dan Truman is a Beehive State native and former member of the Brigham Young University performing arts troupe the Young Ambassadors. "I expect we'll be inundated with members of the Truman clan" at the SCERA show, Johnson said, adding that drummer Brian Prout is a big fan of Utah's famous ski terrain, and that the whole group enjoys performing here.
"It's a beautiful area, plain nice to visit," Johnson said.
Though most strongly identified with country music, Diamond Rio showed a different side with the release of its most recent album in 2009. "The Reason" is a Christian-themed effort that allowed the band to showcase its faith. "That was something that was kind of on our bucket list," Johnson said.
As many bands have in recent years, Diamond Rio found itself with greater freedom to explore its sound after amicably ending its 15-year relationship with Arista Records in 2007. The group released a Christmas album, "A Diamond Rio Christmas: The Star Still Shines," then followed that up with "The Reason."
The album was welcomed by fans, but Johnson said that he doesn't know whether Diamond Rio will go that route a second time. "If a label came and said, 'We'd love to have you do another of these albums,' I think we would be happy to do it," he said. "As far as the band is concerned, we love doing that type of music."
One thing that complicated the release of "The Reason," Johnson said, was convincing Christian retailers and radio stations to get on board with it. "It was certainly a lot harder for us to market than we had expected," he said. "The Christian market is a pretty tight-knit organization. They viewed us basically as outsiders; they were very reluctant to let us into the Christian fold."
Much of country music has shifted toward rock and pop sensibilities in recent decades, but Johnson said that Diamond Rio has stuck to the more traditional country sound. He said that the band never uses studio musicians in its recording sessions, which has kept the Diamond Rio sound more or less consistent from the beginning. "We've done things where we thought, 'This is going to sound really different,' but when you boil it down, it's like, 'No, that sounds like us,' " Johnson said. "You put the six of us together and have us record something, it's going to sound like Diamond Rio when we're done."
It's a formula that still packs in fans. SCERA publicist April Berlin said on Wednesday that there are still general admission tickets available for next week's show, but that the reserved seating areas are sold out.
Diamond Rio tours regularly, and Johnson said that it's the thrill of playing live shows that keeps the band on the go. "We ain't out there to travel. I don't think any of us enjoy going down the road in the bus," he said. "You get over that in the first year. You get really tired of the bus, the hotels, the restaurants. The only thing you don't get tired of is the show."
The connection with fans, Johnson said, still energizes him. "We've been extremely lucky in having songs that mean a lot to people," he said. "You can't ask for more than that."