The surreal rise of Straight No Chaser
When he graduated from Indiana University in 2000, Don Nottingham headed west, ski-bummed in Beaver Creek for a winter, then went to law school at the University of Colorado. By 2006, he was starting a family and prosecuting cases as a deputy district attorney in Jefferson County. But a funny thing happened on the way to middle-aged anonymity in the Denver suburbs: YouTube.
A clip of Nottingham’s college a cappella group performing a creatively flubbed version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” went online and went viral, with seven million views in a matter of weeks.
Record companies started calling. Improbably, the all-male a cappella group reformed with 10 members, redubbed itself Straight No Chaser, signed a multi-album deal with Atlantic Records in 2008, and has since become a touring sensation. In 2010, Nottingham quit his day job to record and tour with Straight No Chaser full-time.
“We’re still flabbergasted that this is what we do for a living,” said Nottingham. “This doesn’t happen. Nobody else ever gets to tell the story I get to tell.”
At the time of Straight No Chaser’s Internet rebirth, Nottingham’s a cappella career was little more than a goofy collegiate memory. Married with two kids, dropping his career to get the group back together was not a decision he took lightly.
“My wife said, ‘You can’t let an opportunity like this go by, you’ll be kicking yourself forever,’” he recalled. “I’ve been going full-time for five years now and it has worked.”
Theirs is a charismatic, creative take on a cappella. It’s delivered with a smirk, but these guys are serious about entertaining. Straight No Chaser’s set Wednesday night at the Wheeler Opera House is as likely to include a cappella takes on Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” as medleys of 50’s and 60’s pop hits. The group’s signature is coming up with an alternative spin on familiar songs – sometimes they’re parodies, like their “All About That Bass,” where the basses in the group sing the chorus, but sometimes they serve up more faithful arrangements, like their doo-wop take on “To Make You Feel My Love.” Their most recent album, 2013’s “Under the Influence,” included their takes on Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep” and of Dolly Parton’s country classic “Jolene” (with Parton joining the group).
“We’re lucky that we get to do a lot of different things,” he said. “I’d like to say that we can cover anything.”
Along with Parton, Straight No Chaser’s last record put them in the studio with legends like Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. This rekindled college a cappella group may come across as a lighthearted endeavor, but Straight No Chaser has somehow commanded the attention of the world’s best-known entertainers.
“It’s totally surreal, the fact that this is the life we lead,” said Nottingham. “We take the music very seriously and work hard to craft our show and our albums – but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
The surreal rise of Straight No Chaser continues. Dreamworks Studios is developing a feature film based on their story. And this spring, they landed the biggest gig in Indiana. After the current tour, Straight No Chaser has the weighty task of performing “(Back Home Again) in Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500. They’re succeeding Jim Nabors, who retired last year after performing the traditional pre-race ballad annually since 1972. For a group of Indiana grads, performing for a crowd of hundreds of thousands before the state’s iconic race is akin to knighthood.
“It’s really an honor for us,” said Nottingham. “We’re excited to sing for all those people.”
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