Every young artist’s dream is to have a hit song. A song that people will sing back to them every night, leaving a lasting legacy long after their heyday.
Heartland found that success and then some. Their debut song, “I Loved Her First,” skyrocketed to number one, creating a whirlwind for a band and record label that may not have been ready for the overwhelming success of their hit song.
In this interview, conducted in 2016, Charles Crawford, fiddler, acoustic guitarist, and background vocalist of Heartland, discussed the extreme highs and lows during his time in the country music industry.
JL: When did Heartland form?
CC: The band formed in the early 90s. We all knew each other, but I was doing my own project, so I didn’t join until around 2001.
JL: How long were you looking to gain attention from record labels and how did you come on to the radar of Lofton Creek Records?
CC: I had been going back and forth to Nashville since I was 15. The band I was in would play shows for basically whatever someone wanted to pay us, then we would take that money and pay for a trip to Nashville to shop labels. The other guys were all doing basically the same thing. We were starting to get older and decided to give it one last push. We did a demo for about $500. We recorded three songs and took them into Lofton Creek Records. We didn’t talk about it much, but the song you hear on the radio is the $500 demo.
Another thing that we didn’t talk about much was the fact that we actually paid Lofton Creek $10,000 to put the song out. They ended up getting credit for discovering us, but we brought the demo to their office, and paid them to put the song out. This is a terrible way of trying to get into the music business. You should never pay someone to put your song out. If they actually like you and your songs, they won’t need your money, they will be happy to use their own. We just got very lucky. The last time someone broke into the charts that way before us was “Achy Breaky Heart,” and as far as I know, no one has done it since.
JL: Did you think “I Loved Her First” would be a hit the first time you heard it?
CC: I knew were on our way to a hit but at the beginning, I have to admit, I didn’t have a lot of faith. I didn’t have a daughter and the song really didn’t speak to me like it has millions of people. After playing a couple of shows, it was easy to see what we had done and how it was going to go over. Every place we played, we heard stories of daughters who had not talked to their dads in years, and this song brought them together; daughters whose dads had never met them and after hearing the song, went to find them. Things like that.
JL: What do you remember about the first time you heard “I Loved Her First” on the radio?
CC: The first time I heard “I Loved Her First,” it sounds like a made up story, but it’s really true. Our local station still considered us to be local musicians and basically refused to play the song, so there was not a lot of opportunity to hear it. After the song moved up the charts, we were asked to sign an actual record deal instead of the one that we paid for. We met at an IHOP and signed our record deal on a bench in the parking lot. Pretty glamorous.
After signing, I got in my truck and the first song that came on the radio was “I Loved Her First.” I think I called everyone I had ever met. It seemed like I had made it, even though that was just the beginning. I took a picture of the radio where it said “I Loved Her First.” I wish I still had that, but when you’re just getting started, you take all of the things like that for granted because you feel like it’s gonna last forever.
JL: When “I Loved Her First” skyrocketed up the charts, what was the one biggest change the band faced?
CC: When “I Loved Her First” started going up the charts, everyone was still living their lives pretty much the same. It was crazy. We were all still working our jobs, and every day we would get an email telling us how far our song had gone up the charts. After it cracked the top 40, we all started playing music for a living.
At first, it was a disaster. The record label was not big enough to handle the demand for us or the song. People were paying hundreds of dollars for copies of the song off eBay because you still couldn’t buy it in a store. They (Lofton Creek Records) had never had touring act, so no one knew what to do when we went on the road. Playing on the road and playing at your local bar are two different animals.
It took us months of getting kicked around before we learned the ropes. By then, we were all so tired of getting kicked around that we had very short fuses when it came to dealing with problems. We were just basically lead to a slaughter. After we got things under control, it was a lot of fun. We got to go places and see things we would have never been able to do otherwise. Even though our families got to go with us sometimes, it still put a strain on the married guys. It’s a hard life under any circumstance, but when you have a wife and kids, it can be pretty brutal.
JL: After the success of “I Loved Her First”, was there pressure to top it?
CC: After “I Loved Her First,” we put out several other songs. A lot of people ask why we never put out anything else afterwards, but the fact is we did, they just never got any airplay. Everything we did was compared to that song. When your first release is one of the fastest charting songs of all time, it’s hard to top it. We would release a song that was a departure from that song, and people would complain that we had went too far, then we would release a song that was similar and they would say it’s too close. We couldn’t win.
Heartland’s second single, “Built to Last.”
JL: What were the thoughts within the band when your next singles from the “I Loved Her First” record didn’t chart nearly as well?
CC: When we couldn’t get another song on the charts, we started trying to find any advantage we could, from hiring the best producers to changing labels. A lot of the problem was the Nashville way of thinking. The first album we made, we played the instruments, we all sang the parts, we produced in a small house on a shoestring budget. It’s crazy, but after having so much success, the first thing everyone wanted to do was change the formula. We were not allowed to sing the background vocals or play anymore on the new songs, so our sound went away and we ended up sounding like every other band in Nashville.
JL: You mentioned that you and the band had fallen into traps, can you explain what some of these were?
CC: It’s really important to try not to make too many mistakes when you are getting started, because you are only gonna get so many shots. We made every mistake someone could possibly make. When I say “we,” I mean our label included. We went with the wrong songs on our releases, we made horrible business deals, we had an enormous overhead.
JL: What caused certain members of the original band to leave after the “I Loved Her First” cd?
CC: After the shows dried up, some of the guys had to move on because they still had families to take care of. It’s a pride swallowing experience when you walk back into work after having so much success. People don’t understand how easy it is to blow your chances when you get in that position.
JL: How does it make you feel that “I Loved Her First” is still a popular father/daughter wedding song today?
CC: I still smile when I hear the song being played. It kinda brings mixed emotions though. You can’t help but think about what could have been. The singer (Jason Albert) was playing an acoustic show in a park where there was a wedding happening close to him. The wedding party asked if he would stop playing for minute so they could do the father daughter dance. They used our song. They never knew they had just told the guy who sang it to stop playing.
JL: Are you content with your music career being largely remembered for the success of “I Loved Her First”?
CC: At first, it was very hard to go back to living our lives the old way. We all tried to do what we could to stay in the music business, but one by one, we all had to give it up. Now that some time has passed, I don’t regret any of it. I got to do and see things most people only dream of, I met a great girl who is now my wife, I have a good job and a nice house; things that you take for granted until you don’t have them. The music business is a fun job if you can get it, but you better be ready for a ride.
Update: One year after this interview was conducted, Heartland was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.