The Number Ones

March 4, 2000

The Number Ones: Lonestar’s “Amazed”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Look at this fucking guy. Dig the jut of the chin, the bushiness of the eyebrows, the plain black T-shirt tucked into the plain black slacks. I never saw Lonestar’s video for “Amazed” back when the country wedding ballad was ruling the Hot 100, so I never knew how lead singer Richie McDonald looked. But you couldn’t possibly imagine a guy who looks more like he might start singing “Amazed” than Richie McDonald. I’m pretty sure McDonald is the whitest, squarest man to score a #1 hit in the 20th century. He looks like he’s sculpted out of solid milk. He looks like a supporting character on The Righteous Gemstones. He looks like Sean Hannity on karaoke night. But when this motherfucker lifts his arms up to the camera at the climax of the “Amazed” video, it hits like Boyz II Men throwing down their umbrellas in the rain.

“Amazed” wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever since the end of the early-’80s urban-cowboy moment, country music had more or less walled itself off from the rest of pop. In the ’90s, Garth Brooks was a star on the level of Elvis or Michael Jackson; he sold records like you wouldn’t believe. But even as he strapped on a Janet Jackson headset mic and pulled stadium-rock moves for audiences that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, Garth didn’t want to let himself drift into pop. Instead, Garth took advantage of the Billboard chart rules by refusing to release singles to pop stations. Garth and the rest of the country music establishment viewed country as a parallel world, an ecosystem of its own.

Garth Brooks was the exception in so many ways, but as far as ’90s Nashville country went, he was the rule. Nobody really tried to crash the pop charts. The few crossover-minded hitmakers out there were controversial apostate figures. And while a few of those artists, like Billy Ray Cyrus and Shania Twain, did elbow their way into the top 10, they never made any #1 hits. (Billy Ray Cyrus didn’t reach #1 in the ’90s, anyway. He’ll eventually end up in this column, and that’ll be a whole epic saga of its own.) In the 18 years between Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands In The Stream” and Lonestar’s “Amazed,” the closest thing to a crossover country chart-topper was All-4-One’s adult-contempo R&B version of John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear.”

As the ’90s wound down, things started to change. Billboard altered the rules and started factoring country stations into its Hot 100 tabulation. In 1999, Garth Brooks finally allowed one of his singles into the top 10 — though “Lost In You,” the song in question, was actually credited to Chris Gaines, Brooks’ goofy-ass flop of a rock-star alter-ego. (“Lost In You” peaked at #5; it’s a 4.) Around the same time, a few other country stars, established figures like Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes, were landing top-10 hits of their own. When Lonestar’s “Amazed” did manage to conquer the Hot 100, another country song was sitting right there at #3. (“Breathe,” Hill’s highest-charting pop song, ultimately peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

At the time, it might’ve looked like “Amazed” was a signal of some generational shift, like country artists were finally going to rejoin the pop mainstream and start racking up #1 hits of their own. It didn’t quite happen. There have been a few #1 hits since “Amazed” that are arguably country, but even those songs aren’t products of the Nashville system the way that “Amazed” is. “Amazed” was a one of one, a fleeting takeover. Nobody could’ve predicted that Lonestar would be the group to gatecrash the pop charts like that. Sometimes, though, the sheer force of aggressively normal romance can overcome just about anything.

Lonestar are named after the state of Texas, not after Bill Pullman’s character in Spaceballs. When Lonestar got started in 1992, all the members of the band were Texans living around Nashville. (For a little while, they called themselves Texassee, a truly awful name.) A couple of Lonestar members had been members of Canyon, a country band who had some limited success in the ’80s. All of them had menial day jobs; Lubbock native Richie McDonald was mixing grain feed at a co-op. (When McDonald was born, the #1 song in America was Joey Dee And The Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist – Part 1.”) Early on, Lonestar toured around as much as they could, and they found a residency at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon. In 1995, they signed with the country label BNA and released their self-titled debut.

On their early records, Lonestar were a good-time honky-tonk act very much in the vein of so much neo-traditionalist ’90s country. They wore big cowboy hats and threw tons of fiddles on their records, and their songs were pretty catchy. Lonestar’s debut single “Tequila Talkin’” made it to #8 on the country charts, and they followed it with the country #1 hit “No News.”

Lonestar’s second album, 1997’s Crazy Nights, had another country chart-topper in “Come Cryin’ To Me.” The second single from Crazy Nights only got to #12 on the country chart, but it became Lonestar’s first Hot 100 crossover. Bryan Adams and Mutt Lange, two guys who have been in this column a bunch of times, wrote “You Walked In,” which peaked at #93. Another single, the homesick and nostalgic “Everything’s Changed,” also made the Hot 100, but it only got as far as #95. Those first two albums both went gold, but Lonestar weren’t in any immediate danger of breaking out and becoming mega-successful.

In 1998, founding bassist and occasional lead singer John Rich left Lonestar to go solo, and he eventually found success as half of the giddily goofy duo Big & Rich. (Big & Rich’s biggest Hot 100 hit is 2007’s “Lost In This Moment,” which peaked at #36. But their biggest hit in my heart is 2004’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy),” which made it to #56 on the pop charts. I love that stupid song.) Big & Rich eventually became giant Trump guys, but I won’t let that ruin “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” for me.

After Rich left the band, Lonestar regrouped, and they found themselves a new producer. Nashville native Dann Huff had gotten his start in a couple of rock bands, and he’d become a prolific session guitarist, playing on a lot of the songs that have shown up in this column. Huff’s producing career is slightly bewildering. He worked on a lot of the shitty latter-day Megadeth records, and he also produced for big country stars like Faith Hill. (Huff was doing a Megadeth record, probably 1999’s Breadline, while also working with Lonestar. Those must’ve been weird days.) While working with Huff on their 1999 album Lonely Grill, the members of Lonestar would sit in a conference room, listening to the songs that various publishers brought them. One of those songs was “Amazed.”

“Amazed” came from a team of three seasoned Nashville country songwriters: Marv Green, Aimee Mayo, and Chris Lindsey. I’m always fascinated by the whole world of Nashville songwriters — these figures who rarely make their own records and who have made a vocation out of cranking out tracks for other artists. In some ways, it’s the Southern version of the old Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley model, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. When they worked on “Amazed,” Mayo and Lindsey were dating; they’ve since gotten married and had a bunch of kids. Some of that romantic sentiment almost certainly went into “Amazed.”

Those three songwriters spent about five hours coming up with “Amazed,” and then they recorded a demo before they had a title. This isn’t one of those stories of lightning-bolt inspiration where someone writes a whole hit song in five minutes. This was work, but they put the time in and figured it out. Tim McGraw’s camp turned the song down, but Lonestar accepted it. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Richie McDonald says, “I remember the day ‘Amazed’ came in. We all thought it was a passionate song [that] people could relate to. But if you asked us then if it was going to do what it did, we wouldn’t have had any idea.”

As recorded by Lonestar, “Amazed” is high-grain corn. Most of my favorite country songs are the ones that get into storytelling specificity, and “Amazed” isn’t one of those. Instead, “Amazed” gets over on generic sentimentality, but it’s the satisfying kind of generic sentimentality. It’s telling that the Lonestar guys don’t wear cowboy hats in the “Amazed” video. The song is more of an adult-contempo love jam than anything. It’s got fiddle and pedal steel, but they’re pretty deep in the mix under the booming drums and the REO Speedwagon-ass power chords. Really, the main thing that even makes “Amazed” a country song is Richie McDonald’s accent.

Richie McDonald sings the song with a kind of rigid, upright soulfulness. He starts out trying to murmur quietly about eye contact and love conveyed through touch. Even there, though, you can feel his voice straining to erupt. When the chorus hits, McDonald immediately switches into full-on belting, his twang giving the song a bit more feeling than someone like Lonestar’s past collaborator Bryan Adams would’ve been able to convey. He doesn’t know how you do what you do. He’s so in love with you, and it just keeps getting better. Behind him, backup-singer harmonies pile on top of each other, giving that hook a cheesy grandeur that’s hard to resist.

It’s easy enough to hear what people would like in “Amazed.” It’s a naked, heartfelt declaration of all-encompassing love. It’s a song about looking at this person who’s come into your life and wondering how this person is even real. I hope you’ve had that feeling. I have. Romances can get tangled and complicated, and that feeling can sometimes get lost in the mess of everyday life, but “Amazed” isn’t about any of that. “Amazed” is about the moment when that simple and pure feeling just overwhelms you — when the smell of their skin, the taste of their kiss, the way they whisper in the dark is all you can even think about. That’s a feeling worth immortalizing. “Amazed” isn’t a groundbreaking pop song or anything, and I’m not always in the mood for its hammy theatrics, but it’s become a wedding perennial for a reason.

When Lonestar released their Lonely Grill album, the first single was opening track “Saturday Night,” and it was a resounding flop, only getting to #47 on the country chart. But when “Amazed” came out as the LP’s second single, it took off at country stations, eventually topping the country chart for eight weeks in an era when that kind of run was truly rare. (These days, country songs will top that chart for months at a time; it’s a different world.) During that run, “Amazed” broke onto the Hot 100, too, getting as high as #24. Then Lonestar decided that they could push the song even further if they gave it a remix.

Dann Huff was too busy to oversee Lonestar’s “Amazed” remix, so the Nashville producers Nick Stewart and Brian Tankersley took the song on instead. Richie McDonald re-recorded his vocals, and a bunch of studio musicians played on it, adding more strings and more power chords. In the Bronson book, McDonald says, “You can’t have steel and fiddle in an adult contemporary format or a pop format. So you take a few things away, and you add a few things.” That remix really doesn’t add much, though. It’s basically “Amazed” with 30% less personality. That radio-format fragmentation has really done a lot to segment and stifle American pop music. The idea that the mere sound of a pedal steel would send someone lunging for the dial is pure boardroom bullshit, but it became conventional wisdom somewhere in there. I hate it.

The remix did its job, though. “Amazed” became the first country song to reach #1 in nearly two decades. Lonestar’s Lonely Grill album went triple platinum. The group never got anywhere near #1 again, but they became a consistent pop-chart presence. Lonely Grill spun off three more singles, and all of them made the lower reaches of the top 40. (“What About Now,” the biggest of those singles, peaked at #30.)

After “Amazed,” Lonestar racked up five more #1 hits on the country chart, and they were consistently hitting the Hot 100 as late as 2006. None of those hits made the top 10; the band’s highest-charting post-“Amazed” single, 2003’s “My Front Porch Looking In,” peaked at #23. But Lonestar were a big band for a long time. Dann Huff produced Lonestar’s next three albums, and they settled into a formula of slick, vaguely sensitive pop-country tracks — anthems of domesticity.

After a couple of relatively unsuccessful albums, BNA dropped Lonestar, and Richie McDonald left the band to go solo in 2007. But Lonestar kept going with another singer, and McDonald rejoined the band four years later. McDonald finally left Lonestar again last year, but they immediately found themselves a new singer, and they’re still going. That makes sense. There are always going to be people who want to hear “Amazed,” no matter who’s singing, and the remaining members of Lonestar are too realistic to leave that money on the table. In the years ahead, country crossover would take strange new forms: Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, maybe Lil Nas X. “Amazed” remains a lightning-in-a-bottle moment — a rare occasion when some straight-up Nashville red meat could smash its way past Mariah Carey and the Backstreet Boys, when it could conquer American pop.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the smoky, raspy “Amazed” cover that Bonnie Tyler, a past subject of this column, released in 2003:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Boyz II Men, a group that’s appeared in this column a bunch of times, released their own melodramatic R&B version of “Amazed” in 2009. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s deep-voiced country urchin and eventual winner Scott McCreery singing “Amazed” on a 2011 episode of American Idol:

(Scotty McCreery’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2011’s “I Love You This Big,” peaked at #11. The whole American Idol industrial complex will eventually figure into this column, and we’ll see Scotty’s guest mentor Beyoncé in here very soon.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2014, Lonestar’s Richie McDonald showed up on the country duo Haley & Michaels’ single “Just Another Love Song,” and he sang the hook from “Amazed.” Here’s the “Just Another Love Song” video:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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