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.
“It kind of gives a glimpse into like the high-end professional world of touring musicians. A lot of times we’ll watch the headliner after we play, and we’ll go like, ‘OK, so that’s where we need to be at,’” Haynes said. “It’s a nice kick in the butt every time. It’s like ‘All right, time to go home and woodshed.”
The bandmates also wrote or co-wrote all 13 tracks on their debut album, due out this year on Land Run Records, and discovered a surprising knack for harmonizing their vocals in the studio.
“It was like we all stopped in the middle of a song and we’re thinking, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ From then on, every single song has four-part harmony and it evolved into this vocal thing. And we love it,” Earhart said.
“You go all the way back to the Eagles, who are one of our biggest influences, and then back to like the ‘90s of Diamond Rio and Restless Heart and Ricochet and all those, that’s the sound we want to bring back. We want to bring back those type of big, standout harmonies. So it went from this random band in a movie to now a vocal group.”
The harmonies propelled their first single, the buoyant ballad “Call Me Crazy” to No. 34 on the Texas Regional Radio Chart. After eight weeks, their downhome party song “My Country” already has ascended to No. 52 and has been tapped as a theme for Professional Bull Riders events.
After the May 2013 tornadoes ravaged so much of their home state, the bandmates were in perfect harmony in their desire to help. They played benefit shows, led diaper and clothing drives and helped out with cleanup.
For the lead singer, it was a cause close to home. Earhart’s high school, Westmoore, was hit by the May 3, 1999, tornado, and the May 31 twister that set a record for widest tornado on record caved in the roof of his south Oklahoma City apartment.
“I remember getting a text from Kyle that says ‘Going into the shelter. Let you guys know later.’ We were all just like, ‘Whoa,’” Haynes said. “It’s like across the whole state, as soon as it happened, everybody was like ‘OK, what can I do to help?’ The whole state of Oklahoma did that, and we were just part of that.”
So, they were surprised with Rep. Richard Morrissette invited them to the state Capitol, where they were honored May 7 on the House floor with a citation and a standing ovation.
The band even got to sing “This Ole Place,” a reverent acoustic tribute to its home state, there at the Capitol.
We didn’t think we were doing anything special. We were just doing kind of what we were raised to do,” Earhart said.
“I will admit I’ve actually cried singing that song on stage ... and I think it got to us more than we thought it would. Just being in that atmosphere and why we were there and the fact that it was in a room full of Oklahomans who understood the lyrics. They understood what it means to be an Oklahoman. Oh yeah, it gets to you. I love singing the song, man, because it’s who we are.”
UPCOMING OKLAHOMA SHOWS
When: 9 p.m. May 30.
Where: Cherokee Casino West Siloam Springs, 2416 Highway 412, West Siloam Springs.
When: 8 p.m. May 31.
Where: Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs, 20900 S 4200 Rd., Claremore.
When: 9:30 p.m. June 5.
Where: Wormy Dog Saloon, 311 E Sheridan.