On his sixth studio album, Casey Donahew is reaching for the stars. You don't have to go more than the first chorus of new record All Night Long, out today (Aug. 19), to hear it. But you definitely should.
The first single and lead-off track "Kiss Me" shows an undeniable growth in the band's sound. Also, it brings a banjo.
"That's a new sound right off the bat that's different," says Donahew. So different, in fact, that the band actually had to buy a banjo for their live set just to play that song. "You can't have a song so banjo-driven and then just loop it in live," he continues. "My guys can pull it off, and we want to do it real."
But it's not just the banjo. The song's melody, anchor hook and subject matter -- earnest, heart on your sleeve love -- all point to one of the strongest singles to come out of Texas in a year. Donahew hopes it'll make its way far out of Texas, too.
"This is our first national single," says Donahew. "So we've been out flying around, shaking hands and meeting radio folks." After steadily building a Texas country audience that spilled over into the Midwest, Donahew figures it's time to take the plunge to mainstream radio. "We're ready," he says. "It's something that needs to be done."
It's not easy, either. Something Donahew is well aware of. "It's not an easy thing for an independent artist to hire a radio team, sit down at the table with the big boys," says Donahew. "The major labels have the battleships all lined up around the radio stations trying to keep us out, so we've got to try to fight through them."
But there's a confidence in the new album that makes all that time and money (a lot of money) worth it. And most importantly, the band's desire to do it on their own terms with their own sound. Songs like "Kiss Me" and "That Got The Girl" have a great shot to make an impact on radio.
"I wanted to do something different but didn't want to alienate what we built over 13 years," says Donahew. That sentiment pokes through in songs like "White Trash Bay," a thematic continuation of Donahew's recurring "White Trash" songs, which began in 2006.
And there are still the carefree party tunes Donahew's fans know and love. But it's all tighter. The production, calculated. The band returned to Reba McEntire's Starstruck Studios in Nashville for the third time in the row. But this time they brought Josh Leo, whose credits include Alabama, Dustin Lynch and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"I met with several producers, and by the time I got around to Leo it ended up being the perfect fit," says Donahew. The 10-track album features eight songs written and co-written by Donahew and two outside cuts. "I write a lot within the band, with the guys on the bus," says Donahew. That's by no means a normal occurrence, but it lends itself to a particularly fluid process in the studio.
Donahew speaks of the band's search for mainstream success candidly. Even though he's aware of a certain cynical attitude from a subpopulation of fans who don't look fondly at mainstream country. "I'm always prepared for backlash," says Donahew. "I don't care what you're doing, there's gonna be somebody who hates it. Even the critically acclaimed greatest thing ever. Somebody hated the movie that won the Academy Award last year. I promise you, someone thought it was horrible. Or best actor. Someone hated him!"
Donahew smiles at the notion, but the reaction has been nothing but positive so far. "People are really excited," he says. "The people who loved us before are gonna love this record. And if you hated us before, you might still hate this record (laughs)."
But the truth is, All Night Party has a chance to capture a whole crowd who loves Casey Donahew and just doesn't know it yet. "We have a strong fanbase and we want to expand it with the radio," he says simply. "It's the natural progression. We've been touring for 8 years now and watching it grow naturally. That little push you can get from major radio is a big difference."
Because, as Donahew astutely points out, a whole mess of folks still discover new music on the radio. It helps some artists sell out football stadiums. "Not that our goal is to sell out football stadiums," he says, "but maybe some minor league hockey stadiums (laughs). Let's knock one of those out."
It all comes from a genuine place. Donahew promises he's not going to compromise who he is or the music the band makes. Or "put on any costumes." They're just investing in themselves, because that's what bands who are serious about their music do.
And hey, if it means someday Casey Donahew plays the Royal Albert Hall in London (one of his dream venues), it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
When the whole weight of the industry gets a little too heavy, Donahew still has his family to fall back on. "Those little boys at home keep me grounded," says Donahew. "When I'm not on stage I'm just dad, and that's good enough for me."
Sometimes, his 7-year-old even gets to travel with the band. He's even got his own bunk on the bus. "He likes to hang out and watch movies he probably shouldn't be watching with the crew when I'm asleep," laughs Donahew. "Drink sodas and stuff. It's definitely wilder when the kids are on board. We're some of the more boring guys on the road. We like to watch a lot of murder mysteries and go to sleep."
Has his 13-plus year career inspired him to encourage his boys to follow in his footsteps? "Heck no! This is hard!" laughs Donahew. "I'm trying to get them to go to law school or medical school. Throw a football over a mountain or something."
But Donahew reiterates just how gratifying it is to build a music career independently. "The rewards have been greater because we did it on our own, under our terms, our way," he says. If a label comes knocking, they'll do what's best for their careers and their music. But right now, he's just excited for fans to get the new music.
And hopefully, a whole bunch of new fans to discover what the band has always been about.
Casey Donahew's new record All Night Party releases on Aug. 19. He's currently touring into November and will appear at Steamboat Spring's Music Fest in January.