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Aspen Times Weekly: Loggins soars with new band

by STEWART OKSENHORN
Joshua Black Wilkins

In 2007, Kenny Loggins released the album “How About Now,” which represented a major emotional turn. Referring to it as “the divorce album,” Loggins observed that “every Nashville songwriter has a divorce album in him.” But not everyone has one as dark as “How About Now,” which featured such song titles as “I Don’t Want to Hate You Anymore” and “A Year’s Worth of Distance.”

Loggins says now that he didn’t mind exploring the darkness. “You’re going to have to drop down into the scary stuff, the belly of the beast,” he said from a bus that was making its way through the Oregon mountains. But he added that the tougher emotions were not his typical or most preferred way of expressing himself.

“For me, some kind of optimism has always permeated my music. That’s not something to sell. It’s how I am, how I try to be in the world,” the 65-year-old said. Loggins doesn’t need to defend that idea too much. Among his early songs was “House at Pooh Corner,” a honey-sweet tune that took off on Winnie the Pooh and A.A. Milne’s other characters from the Hundred Acre Wood. (It was one of four songs Loggins wrote for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1970 album “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy,” recorded just before the Dirt Band moved from California to Aspen.) “Danny’s Song,” perhaps Loggins’ best-known tune, is a statement of pure optimism: “Even though we ain’t got money/ I’m so in love with you honey.” Among Loggins’ 13 albums are three children’s recordings.

So a few years ago, when Loggins was thinking about forming a band, it was sort of natural that he gravitated toward Gary Burr. Loggins knew that Burr could come up with a tune; he had co-written several songs on “How About Now.” But Loggins was thinking about more than what music skills a bandmate might bring in; he wanted someone who could keep the mood right.

“When I started talking to Gary, I noticed right away, we were laughing a lot. We were having fun,” Loggins said.

Loggins had a few more thoughts in mind regarding the project. He wanted a female singer in the mix. And he had a strong notion that Burr, a well-connected Nashville vet whose songs had been recorded by Randy Travis, Faith Hill and many others, would know who that woman should be. Burr sought out Georgia Middleman, whom he had watched rise, over 15 years, from a Nashville waitress to a Music City hitmaker. The three emerged recently as the Blue Sky Riders.

Loggins and Burr seem able to have some laughs together. Asked how he landed a gig with Loggins — who achieved stardom in the early ‘70s in the soft-rock duo Loggins & Messina, and followed that with a series of movie soundtrack hits, including “I’m Alright” from “Caddyshack” and the title song from “Footloose” — Burr said, “He wanted a Nashville songwriter, and I’m the best.”

“He was, in many ways, the best,” Loggins said. “He was the best-looking.”

“It’s a visual world now,” Burr responded.

Apart from the handsomeness, Burr added an interesting sort of versatility to the Blue Sky Riders, who make their second Belly Up appearance on Thursday, July 18. “Gary is really adaptable,” Loggins said. “It’s like playing a game with Gary — you throw him ideas and he’ll come back with six ways of looking at it. It’s like Yahtzee — throw an idea out and look at it from all different angles.”

On the band’s debut album, “Finally Home,” released in January, it appears the trio has settled on a country style that perches halfway between roots and pop. There are folky acoustic instruments alongside sharply arranged vocal harmonies and a bright pop production. Perhaps most prominent, not surprisingly, is attention to the craft of songwriting.

Most of the songs are credited to the Blue Sky Riders as a group, and all three members get time under the spotlight as singers. By the time “Finally Home” is three songs old, you’ve heard all three take a turn as lead vocalist. Clearly, this is a band and not a Loggins solo project cloaked in something else.

Burr, whose career has mostly been as a writer for hire, along with a stint as lead singer for Pure Prairie League after the departure of Vince Gill, appreciates the band concept.

“It’s freedom for me,” he said. “I’ve always been someone hired for someone else. It’s thrilling to be able to say, I’m going to write something for us to sing. I’ve been in lots of bands, but never in a band where I was in control of what was being said, what the message is.”

In Blue Sky Riders, much of the message is optimism. The band name could come from the song “Just Say Yes”: “From now on, there will be nothing but blue skies.” The album opens with “I’m a Rider,” a song about continuing to move forward despite setbacks and uncertainty, and about enjoying the trip. The song gives the album its title, “Finally Home.”

“In a way, it refers to this band — that it’s not a flirtation, it’s an arrival,” Loggins said. He added that the album title, and Blue Sky Riders, also represent a return of sorts.

“Loggins & Messina — it was always a folky, country blend,” he said. “So I’ve come back home in a way. It’s very comfortable for me.”


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