“I said the night you left me, nothing worse could ever happen, but seeing you with someone else proved that I was wrong.”
Those were the words that served as Doug Stone’s introduction to country radio, which set him on a meteoric rise in the first half of the 1990s, and cemented him as a staple for country music of that era.
That song, “I’d Be Better Off (In a Pine Box)” shot straight to number four on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and was followed by the equally legendary 90s country anthems “Fourteen Minutes Old” and “In a Different Light.”
However, as 2020 got underway, those songs were a bit more than “Fourteen Minutes Old;” the new decade brought about the 30 year anniversary of Stone’s debut album. In the three decades that have followed, Stone has earned eight number one songs, earned two Academy of Country Music Awards and a Grammy nomination, and has been a consistent ally to the traditional country music community, releasing 13 albums, including his most recent release, Mama’s Songbook, and earning him the admiration of the next generation of country music artists.
But before he made his impressive entrance onto the scene, Stone was growing up in a musical family and being drawn to a myriad of influences that made him fall in love with music.
“My mother got me started by teaching me how to sing and play guitar,” says Stone. “I liked all kinds of music. I liked rock and roll like Led Zeppelin, but I also liked Merle Haggard. I was a fan of Michael Jackson, but I also loved Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was influenced by music in general.”
Stone felt music’s call early in his life, and knew that one day, he would be carving his own path in the industry.
“I felt like I was born to do music. I always told people around me that I was going to be in the business some day and that I was going to be a star on TV and make records,” says Stone. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but I told them to keep looking out for it.”
As he turned 30, Stone realized that he had to make the move to Nashville if he was serious about pursuing a career in music and making those dreams come true.
“They thought I was 26 when I got there,” Stone says with a laugh. “When I hit 30, I told myself if I didn’t get off my butt and do something, nothing was ever going to happen. That’s when I got up and went to Nashville.”
After quickly making a connection in the industry, Stone found himself signed to a major label just as quickly, inking a deal with Epic Records in the late 80s.
“The girl that discovered me in my hometown asked if I wanted her to be my manger, and she brought me a contract. I looked at it, and it said I could be out of it in a year if she didn’t get me a record deal, so I signed it,” Stone says with a laugh. “The rest is history. We took off like a rocket.”
When the time came to record his debut album for the label, so did the time to record “I’d Be Better Off (In a Pine Box),” a song that Stone admits not being too fond of initially, noting that Randy Travis had already passed on it, but after some tweaks, the song took on a life of its own.
“That was my first record deal, and I was told that that song was going to be a hit for me. You want the deal so bad that you do whatever you can,” says Stone. “The demo of that song was pretty bad, but I got to work with it while they were putting my contract together, and we got it to what you hear on the record today.”
The song became a top five hit at country radio, and also allowed Stone the opportunity to hear himself coming over the airwaves for the first time.
“When it came on, I just about jumped through the roof of the car while it was still moving,” Stone says with a laugh. “I was saying ‘That’s me! Finally!’”
Two more singles, “Fourteen Minutes Old” and “These Lips Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye” peaked at number six and number five respectively, but it was the album’s fourth and final single, “In a Different Light,” that took Stone to number one for the first time and made everything seem real to him.
“It was weird,” says Stone. “When that happened, all of a sudden, it just felt like I want in the music business.”
Stone’s debut album was certified Platinum and earned him nominations at the CMA Awards, and ACM Nomination and even a Grammy nomination for “I’d Be Better Off (In a Pine Box).” The next year, Stone was already preparing the release of his sophomore effort, I Thought It Was You, but not feeling any pressure to match or surpass the success of his debut or avoiding the “sophomore slump.”
“I never really felt any pressure to beat the first one,” says Stone. “When it comes to music, I’ve never felt that. Before that album came out, a guy in New York wrote a review criticizing it pretty hard. When it came out, pretty much everything went to number one. I learned early on not to listen to people like that.”
The album’s title track and follow up single, “A Jukebox With a Country Song” earned Stone his second and third number one singles, which he admits almost felt like a whirlwind at the time, but also credits God for the “amazing” experience he had with his first two albums.
As 1992 began, so did another album for Stone. However, as he was preparing its release, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery after blockages in his arteries initially went undiscovered by doctors. Not wanting to lose his slot on the radio, just weeks after the surgery, Stone was back on the stage.
“Four weeks after the surgery, I was on stage in Denver, Colorado. It was a good thing I only had a 30 minute show, because that was about all I had. I almost ripped open where they did the arteriogram in my leg,” says Stone. “I knew if you slowed down for too long, people would forget you. Before I knew it, the next guy would be up there taking my place, so it was one of those things where I had to hurry up and get it back together.”
So he did, and the success kept coming. Stone’s third album, From the Heart was released, earning him two more number ones with “Too Busy Being in Love” and “Why Didn’t I Think of That,” and allowing him to adopt of positive outlook on what had taken place early in the year.
“Life has always been like a road to me,” says Stone. “There’s the natural ups and downs. I learned that I had the downs covered and that I could get through them.”
After From the Heart was certified Gold, Stone was once again back in the studio recording songs for his fourth album, More Love. With his new album, Stone took on the role of co-producer and was also much more involved in the songwriting process, serving as a writer on “Addicted to the Dollar,” the first number one he had a writing credit on.
“I’ve always loved writing. I love the creation end of music almost more than the performing end,” Stone says with a laugh. “It always interested me when I could go into a room with a blank piece of paper and come out with something people would enjoy.”
When the album’s title track was released as the third and final single and charted at number six, it served as the 14th single Stone had released in his career, which was comprised of eight number ones and every other single reaching at least number six.
“It was a crazy time! I’ll be honest, I was going so hard, I didn’t even know I was a big star. It was funny, I felt like a diesel mechanic out on the road picking and grinning like I did every weekend,” says Stone. “At that point, I was going six or seven days a week doing a show or two a day. It made me feel like I had finally fit in. Music was where I fit.”
Stone expanded his horizons in 1995, starring as country singer Luke MacCallister in the film Gordy, “the story of a talking pig who made it big,” which he calls a strange, but rewarding experience.
“I had always wanted to do a movie, and that was a really fun one to do,” says Stone. “I didn’t know what it took to do a movie. It was really funny, they did my makeup at six in the morning, and I’d sit around until four or five in the afternoon, and then they put me to work for three or four hours. It was really weird, but I enjoyed it.”
1995 also saw the release of Stone’s fifth album, Faith in Me, Faith in You, his fifth album in six years. Stone admits that the constant travel and process of being a musician came with an adjustment period and took a bit of a toll on him.
“It was a little strange. One day, I was in LA working on the album, and then I had to fly back into Nashville to do two videos, and then I flew straight to New York. It was a hard day,” says Stone. “Before I got in the business, I thought it was easy. I thought it was easy to just get up on stage for an hour and a half or two hours. That’s the easy part. Getting to the gig and interacting with fans and all the stuff that goes along with performing and recording is the hard part. I tell people that I’d play for free, getting to the gig is the problem.”
After a move from Epic Records to Columbia Records for Faith in Me, Faith in You, Stone failed to reach the top 10 with each of the three singles from the album for the first time in his career, something he attributes to the change in labels.
“I believe that was the label’s fault,” says Stone. “I was on Epic Records, and they moved me over to Columbia because Epic was failing. When I was on Columbia, I was failing.”
As the halfway point of the 1990s came to a close and 1996 began, Stone suffered a near fatal heart attack and a mild stroke in quick succession, which gave him a new perspective and appreciation for life as he made his recovery.
“I knew I was here for a reason. You can’t worry about dying. I worried about it for about a year after my surgery. I was walking around like a guy with a black cloud over his head,” says Stone. “One day, I was in Nashville driving along, and I saw a guy in a wheelchair with no legs going down the sidewalk, and I said ‘I’m okay. He’s in worse shape than I am.’ Since then, I’ve realized that no matter what shape you’re in, there’s someone in worse shape than you are, so you have to be glad where you’re at.”
To aid his recovery, Stone requested time off the road, which didn’t fly with Columbia Records. He ended up back on the road after just two weeks away, and eventually, was let go by the label.
“I said that I needed to get off the road for a while. I asked if they were behind me on that, and they said they were 100% behind me. It turns out they weren’t,” Stone says with a laugh. “They called me two weeks later and said that people said I was doing drugs and that I couldn’t perform, and they kicked me off of the label. That wasn’t what it was, so I only took two weeks off and went back on the road, which was a big mistake. All I did was hurt my voice.”
For the first time in his career, Stone took a few years between album releases. Four years after Faith in Me, Faith in You was released, Stone, now signed to Atlantic Records, released Make Up in Love. Though he didn’t find the chart success he had with previous albums, Stone says that there was never any doubt that he allowed to creep into his mind about his music, and that he was proud of the album he had made.
“I felt good about that album. Every time I do an album, I try to put 10 hits on it so people won’t have to skip any songs,” says Stone. “I really care about the fans and the music that I make.”
With his subsequent three albums after Make Up in Love, Stone found himself releasing music away from the major label system for the first time. The latter two albums, In a Different Light and My Turn were rooted more heavily in the traditional country sound that Stone introduced himself with than Make Up in Love or its follow up, The Long Way, something that Stone did intentionally when putting the albums together.
“It’s really funny, because it’s like I’m going backwards,” says Stone. “Radio is too far out there for me now, so I did make a conscious effort with those records to go backwards and have a more traditional sound.”
Though 13 years have passed since the release of My Turn, Stone is doubling down on his traditional sound with 2020’s Mama’s Songbook, a collection of 10 classic country songs that he remembers his mother singing as he was initially falling in love with country music, making each song on the album special for him.
“All of the songs on this album are really special to me because they bring back great memories of my mama. She passed away in 1997, and she was the one that got me into this music mess,” Stone says with a laugh. “It makes me think about her every time I sing one of those songs.”
And as he has done for more than three decades, Stone is still taking those songs, as well as the songs that have made him a staple in country music, to his fans, performing about 70 dates per year.
“I love going out on the road, but it’s getting harder for me to do. It wears me out a little more now than it did. Of course, that makes sense a few decades removed from heart surgery,” says Stone. “I really enjoy performing, it’s a lot of fun. It’s my favorite thing to do.”
As the 30 year anniversary of “I’d Be Better Off (In a Pine Box)” came on February 1, CMT published a video of several current country stars, including Jon Pardi, Justin Moore and Billy Currington referencing the song and Stone as making them fall in love with country music, something Stone says he doesn’t take lightly.
“That made me feel great,” says Stone. “It makes me feel like I’m a mentor and that I’m carrying the torch.”
Though the plans he had to commemorate the anniversaries of the songs and album that changed his life have since been put aside due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Stone plans to get back on the road as soon as it is safe to do so.
“This year is a bit up in the air,” says Stone. “We’re going to try to do some touring, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s a really strange time.”
Given the opportunity to look back, Stone, who says he is living a great life in Texas with his family, cherishes the moments he has gotten to share with his fans over the years, and realizes that music has been his true purpose in life.
“I got to wondering one day why I hadn’t died already. I even asked the Lord, with all the health problems that I’ve had, why I was still here,” says Stone. “The very next day, I did a show and a girl came up to me and said that I had brought her through a lot of trouble and heartaches with ‘that Pine Box song.’ I realized that I’m helping people along their path of life. That’s why I’m still here.”
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I love your music. In a Different Light is still an all time favorite. I was lucky enough to meet you at a Charity Golf invent in Nashville many years ago, but never had the pleasure to hear you sing in person. I hope that happens in 2021. Renfro Valley in Mt. Vernon Kentucky would be a great venue for you. Hope to see you there or another place close.
Best of luck!