Somewhere between rock’s Eagles and country’s Alabama rests 36 years of music as made by Restless Heart.
“That’s exactly right,” said Larry Stewart, lead singer of Restless Heart. “Maybe that was the right time for bands to play something different.”
Into their fourth decade, Restless Heart closes out the 70th Annual Washington County Fair on Saturday, Sept. 14. Find them at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Abingdon, Virginia. Listen for the band who defied odds.
“The first thing that goes through my mind,” Stewart said, “the critics didn’t like us.”
Sweetened harmonies accompany smooth melodies sans twang in the music of Restless Heart. They emerged in 1985, smack in the middle of country’s then-new traditionalist movement.
“We stuck around,” Stewart said. “We have outperformed 80% of the marriages in the United States — and it’s still all five of us in the band.”
Not that it was all so swell and simple. Stewart arrived in Nashville as a teenaged baseball prospect at Belmont University. Music? He had no intentions.
“I wanted to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said of a dream that derailed in college. “I graduated from college at Belmont, figured I could work for BMI.”
He did. He mowed grass at BMI, a leading performing rights organization, located in the heart of Nashville’s fabled Music Row. Oh, and Stewart mowed grass at MCA Records Nashville, that is, when he wasn’t working as a stock clerk at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“I was working at the Hall of Fame when Tim DuBois called me,” Stewart said.
DuBois, a famed record producer and label executive, sought musicians to establish a studio recording band. His efforts led to the creation of Restless Heart.
“That was during Thanksgiving of 1983,” Stewart said. “We recorded our first album in the first week of April 1984. I got married in the second week of April. We signed with RCA in September of 1984.”
Restless Heart’s first hit single, a breezy “Let the Heartache Ride,” debuted in January 1985.
“Amazing,” Stewart said.
More amazing, a string of 13 straight top 10 singles followed. Six of them, beginning with “That Rock Won’t Roll” in 1986, ascended to No. 1.
“Nobody in the band wanted to do ‘That Rock Won’t Roll,’ but DuBois begged us to do it,” Stewart said. “It’s not really country. It’s kind of slick, sounded nothing like Randy Travis, who was hot then. Critics hated us.”
But commercial country radio stations enthusiastically played “That Rock Won’t Roll,” which blanketed America’s mainstream country outlets. Primo slots as an opening act on tours with superstars Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. and Reba McEntire punctuated Restless Heart’s early years.
“The first show we played in front of a paying audience was in front of Alabama in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,” Stewart said. “Nervous? I threw up before going on stage. Played for 20 minutes. We ended up touring with Alabama for about a year and a half.”
Four hit albums led Restless Heart through the 1980s and into the ’90s. Light fare including “Bluest Eyes in Texas” and “Wheels” solidified the band’s appeal to fans more enamored with light pop than hard-biting country music. They were interesting years, their time among the top.
“Confusion,” Stewart said. “We were a band just trying to figure out how to make it work. We got to watch country music grow into arenas as we played 45 minutes a night in front of the biggest artists in country music.”
A balloon flown high, Restless Heart’s ascension burst rather quickly.
“We recorded bad songs. That’s my opinion,” Stewart said by way of explaining why Restless Heart vanished in the 1990s. “We put out a song called ‘When Somebody Loves You’ (in 1990). Why were we recording that? It’s not us. The label said it would be huge. All of a sudden, we were being told what to do.”
Like an 18-wheeler out of diesel, Restless Heart pulled off the highway.
“We shut it down,” Stewart said.
Restless Heart resumed in 2001. Regrouped and recharged, they marked 35 years last year.
“The wild thing about it, this year is the best we’ve ever had,” Stewart said. “Isn’t that crazy?”