A version of this story will appear in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
From the drawing board of a movie that was never made to the floor of the state House of Representatives, the Lower 40 has been on a steep, fast rise in the past three years.
The Oklahoma City-based country band won’t even release its debut album until later this year but already has been named one of the Country Music Association’s “Who New to Watch,” become the house band for KFOR and Freedom 43 TV and sung the national anthem at two Oklahoma City Thunder games. Plus, the hard-touring group was presented with a citation declaring May 7 Lower 40 Day at the state Capitol, in honor of their charitable efforts, especially after the 2013 tornadoes.
“We’re just five musicians who grew up in musical families, went to college for music, music is our lives. I think at very young ages we all realized that music was probably going to be our choice of career,” said lead singer and acoustic guitarist Kyle Earhart, during an interview last week at The Oklahoman offices.
“When we started writing, it was mainly for the movie. And the cool thing about the movie is, it actually fell through, which is probably the best thing that ever happened to Lower 40. After the movie fell through, we decided to keep writing. We kind of worked on an identity of what we would want to be – and we started to realize we might have something here.”
Former students at the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma, the five members of Lower 40 were brought together when Oklahoma-based Land Run Records were searching for musicians to make up a fictional band for the film “Blake’s Country.” The film’s financing fell apart, but by the second audition, Earhart wanted to start a real band.
“We were all within like six degrees of each other,” said drummer and harmony vocalist Sherman Haynes, adding that he and Earhart played together in a jazz band before Lower 40. “Kyle came up to me and he was like, ‘Hey, do you want to play a country gig?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’ve never really done that before, but sure. Yeah, I can.’ And then it turned into this. But I grew up on country. In Oklahoma, you almost can’t help but grow up on country. But I had never really played it before ... and I thought, ‘You know, that’s something new. Let’s do it.’”
The five men of Lower 40 all grew up in Oklahoma: Earhart, 24, hails from Moore; Haynes, 24, from Guthrie; lead guitarist and harmony vocalist Nick Work, 28, from Woodward; guitarist, pianist and harmony vocalist Zach Felts, 25, from Yukon; and bassist and harmony vocalist Michael Hines, 23, from Mustang. And they all brought a Heartland work ethic to their band; in just three years, Lower 40 has played 300 to 400 shows.
I can’t even count on two hands in the last year and a half the number of weekends we’ve had off, which I’m not complaining,” Earhart said. “It made us who we are. Doing those 300 to 400 shows, our chemistry on stage has gotten I almost want to say perfected to where we just know exactly what each of us does at a certain point and time.”
They’ve already opened for the likes of Easton Corbin, Scotty McCreery, Sammy Hagar, Joe Nichols, Gretchen Wilson, Wade Bowen and Stoney Larue. They will warm the stage for Uncle Kracker at a free outdoor show June 19 at Newcastle Casino.