In late 1993 the country world was introduced to Blackhawk.
The trio burst onto the country music scene with their debut hit single Goodbye Says It All. The track nearly cracked the top ten on the charts and from there the band went on a run of hits that lasted about five years.
Arista Records in Nashville really had a good thing going when they opened their doors and signed acts like Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis and Blackhawk. Talk about a powerhouse roster of country hitmakers.
It’s unfortunate, but with so many great country artists in the ’90s I feel Blackhawk gets lost a bit in the wash. They aren’t really discussed when it comes to influential artists from that era and I think it’s kind of sad.
Blackhawk had so many hits and those songs continue receiving requests for today’s country radio. There had to be something about these three guys that captured people’s attention.
Beyond the having hit songs during their biggest run of success in the ’90s the guys have seen their music continue to be received well by the current country music – over ten years since they disappeared from the charts.
Looking back now nearly twenty years since the band first debuted on the country scene I wanted to shed some light on the band and the continuing impact I feel they’re having on today’s artists and fans.
The Genius of Blackhawk
Between 1993 and 2011, Blackhawk saw 15 of their singles reach the country music top 40. That’s a pretty good run by music standards where most artists struggle for a hit and even the artsits that make it struggle for lasting appeal. To have 15 hits is a great feat. To have those hits continue receiving airplay a decade after their original run on the charts is something special.
Listen to any country radio station today and you’ll likely hear a Blackhawk song at least once during a normal workday. Pay attention the next time you are listening to the radio at work or on a long car trip. You’ll probably hear Goodbye Says It All or Every Once In A While or I’m Not Strong Enough To Say No. These are great tracks and audiences continue requesting them day after day.
What was it about the band that made them a success in the ’90s and what is it about their music that still attracts new audiences even today – ten plus years after their original run on the charts?
So I put together a playlist on YouTube of 11 of Blackhawk’s hits songs.
Man these were great tracks. They all have a similar tone and feel. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes these songs so great, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s the way the songs discuss each topic.
With a song like Every Once In A While you have a guy looking back on a past relationship. There is a longing in the way the story is told. The lyrics feel like a completely unique way of expressing the situation, but when you hear the song it you get entirely what the guys are singing about.
I think that’s what all performers and songwriters try to achieve with songs, but it can’t be easy to achieve.
The ability to sound entirely unique while being familiar is something nearly all of Blackhawk’s songs accomplished. That puts them at the top of the all time country band list in my book. on its own merit.
For the most part Blackhawk took on the common themes we all experience in life – breakups (Goodbye Says It All, I’m Not Strong Enough To Say No, Almost A Memory Now), taking chances on love (Down In Flames), and even simple inspiration (That’s Just About Right). They’re all things we experience in life.
Attracting a big audience means taking on the things people experience and doing it in a way that sounds fresh while still being familiar. I’d say nearly all of Blackhawk’s singles accomplished this difficult task.
In the ’90s there were some great acts in country music.
Almost forgotten by some country fans, though, are the producers behind the scenes crafting the sound of the songs (in this case Tim DuBois – head of Arista at the time, Mark Bright, among others). Producers and sound engineers are the ones working in the studio to make the music we hear through the radio waves. Songwriters and artists bring in live versions of songs or even rough recordings and task the producers with making it something remarkable that can be played over and over on radio.
Almost more than the songs I’d say the sound of Blackhawk was not only distinct, but genius.
The harmonies, the guitars, the subtle yet powerful background music of the drums and other instruments all coming together made something special with Blackhawk. The sound of their music as a whole was so unique and interesting in the ’90s and remains interesting today.
The best I can do to describe the Blackhawk sound is to say it’s the feeling you get when your at a point of change in your life. If our lives had theme music Blackhawk would be playing at every point of change. When we break up with a significant other. When we take a chance on love with someone new. When we are lost in life and need some inspiration.
These are all moments when Blackhawk music fits perfectly.
I don’t know how many people can name Blackhawk as the band when a song like I’m Not Strong Enough To Say No comes on the radio today (although I think quiet a few can) they sure recognize the unique sound and can pick the songs out once they realize.
Blackhawk had a special country sound in the ’90s. They were able to make music that was relevant back then and should remain relevant for generations.
In 2002 Blackhawk had their last charting hit with One Night In New Orleans. Even before that the band saw a decrease in the number of plays their songs were getting on radio. Big Guitar hit #17 on the charts in 1996 and then there was a two year period without a major hit until There You Have It reached #4 in 1998.
If there is one constant in country music it’s that country artsits fall out of favor with the mainstream audience as tastes change and decision makers look for the next best thing.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.
In 2000, guitarist, background vocalist, and songwriter Van Stephenson had to leave the band to fight off skin cancer. Van Stephenson passed on about a year later from Melanoma. It was a big loss for the other guys in the band – Henry Paul and Dave Robbins.
Van was a well known songwriter in the ’80s writing hits for major acts. Once he came together with the other guys to form Blackhawk their careers took off and they were able to bring their music to the country masses – a rare feat actually since Van was already 40 years old by the time Blackhawk released its first single. Henry Paul was four years older at the time, but the talent of the guys made it impossible for people to overlook.
The guys released one more record in 2002 and since then have continued touring and recording in different variations with Henry being a constant and Dave being around for most of the ’00s and today.
Today Henry and Dave are touring with Randy Threet. Randy was with the band for 2002’s Spirit Dancer album, left the group and is now back. From reviews it seems the guys still have the goods for the live show.
Something I regret to this point is not being able to see them live. Checking their tour schedule I see their are in Wisconsin later this summer. I might have to work it out so I can go. Or maybe the next time they’re in Minnesota I’ll have to check out the show.
It’s one of those things where you keep putting it off until there ain’t no yesterday.
In the ’90s Blackhawk was an inspiring music trio. The songs they made were amazing. The sound was entirely their own and over the years they’ve proven to still be in demand on radio and live in concert.
It takes talent to create songs people still want to hear 20 years after their original release.
Actually…it takes genius.