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Back in 1990, as Diamond Rio's Marty Roe, Dana Williams, Gene Johnson, Brian Prout, Dan Truman and Jimmy Olander were putting the finishing touches on their first album, they couldn't see what was just around the corner. Their debut single, "Meet in the Middle," would soon skyrocket to No. 1, launching an amazing career that would go on to produce six Vocal Group awards collectively from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, five Billboard No. 1s, 14 Top 10s and sales of more than 9 million CDs. Thirteen years later, they're still adding to the hit list - their current Top 40 single, "Wrinkles," looks with lighthearted warmth at life's different stages. But back in 1990, the band had already experienced a series of health blows and personal crises that made them wonder if they'd ever get their fledgling career off the ground.
The Final Cut
Mandolin player Gene was the first to see the inside of an emergency room. "At times through my musical career when I wasn't making enough money, I would fall back on cabinetmaking and carpentry work," he explains. "And in 1990, having just started recording our first album, we weren't doing our normal gigs around the country." So Gene got out his tools and went back to work in between recording sessions.
He was building and installing cabinets for a company in Little Rock, and was literally one saw cut away from completing a job when ...
"I didn't realize a piece of wood I put behind the saw had already been cut halfway through on the other side," he recalls. "It looked new to me. But I didn't get very far into the cut before it sucked the piece I was holding into the saw and cut my left thumb in half lengthwise. It went right up through the first knuckle and the second knuckle."
Needless to say, Gene had concerns about his future as a picker after such a gruesome accident. But there was a silver lining.
"I realized I wasn't devastated when there was a chance I wasn't going to be able to play again," he admits. "I was more thinking, 'Can I make a decent living doing something else?' It kind of refocused my priorities: what's important is here at home."
Amazingly, by the first of the next year, Gene had healed and relearned to play well enough to complete the mandolin parts he hadn't done earlier for the album.
Terror on the Lake
Gene wasn't the only member of the band to be surgically reassembled that year. Within a month of Gene's accident, bass player Dana had one of his own. "We went up to the lake one Sunday - maybe shouldn't have skipped church that morning!" he laughs. After a ski run, Dana was in the water waiting for his wife to pick him up in the boat, which, because of a faulty carburetor, suddenly lurched forward - roaring straight at Dana from about 15 yards away.
Dana instinctively dodged to the side, but the boat's propeller sliced through both his knees as it passed. "I grabbed for my leg," he says, "not knowing if it was there or not."
Three quarters of Dana's kneecap was gone, and his femur bone had a piece sliced off. The tendon that lifts the leg also was severed.
"I was on crutches after two months," he remembers. "Pretty soon I was walking without a cane."
"It was a crossroads for me," he says quietly. "Something like that happens and it becomes clear how fast everything can be over. You start paying attention to your blessings and your priorities. Do you have your life straight? I love Jesus Christ, and it gets into that spiritual end of your life, everything that means anything to you - your wife, your family."
Guitar pickin' Jimmy, normally the picture of health, had a wake-up call of his own at about the same time. He'd experienced some frightening symptoms during the making of their first album - night sweats, high fever and fatigue.
Later, a chest x-ray during the recording of the Love a Little Stronger album revealed a tumor in his chest cavity. While waiting for test results, Jimmy shared his feelings with then-girlfriend Claudia.
"I looked at Claudia and said, 'You know, there's several things I always thought would've happened. I always thought that you and I would've been married. I've always dreamed of goin' on a sky dive.' And there were a couple of songs that I never learned to play. 'Pride o' the Farm' by Dixie Dregs was one."
Fortunately, Jimmy didn't have cancer. He was treated for tuberculosis, and as soon as he felt healthy again, the former procrastinator took control of his life.
"Sure enough, we got married," he grins. "And we have a little son now. I'm almost at 700 sky dives, and I know how to play 'Pride o' the Farm.' I have chosen to make the most of my days. I pretty much work hard, play hard, love hard all day long now. I'm more of a participant than a spectator these days."
Up in Flames
Marty embraces the same philosophy. And, while he wasn't part of the 1990 "walking wounded," a 1993 house fire gave him his own reason to count his blessings.
"We were doing a show in Nebraska," declares Marty. "And our family had just moved into a brand-new home. I came off the stage and our road manager said, 'Your house burned. You need to call Robin.' "
Marty's home had indeed caught fire, the result of a clothes dryer mishap. But, thankfully, wife Robin and then-3-year-old daughter Isabella were fine. Marty also learned that a precious keepsake had survived.
"I had a picture of me with Arnold Palmer," grins the avid golfer. "Luckily that autographed picture made it." Unfortunately, not much else did. But Marty and his family had their priorities elsewhere.
"You know," he declares, "we tried not to ever put much emphasis on material things. I think maybe it was a little gut check that, you know, none of this stuff really matters. It was all about us - family."
While keyboard player Dan hasn't had any fires or serious health issues to deal with, he can recall some pivotal moments in his life. His mother, a classical pianist, instilled in him not only a love of music, but the discipline to become a good musician. She helped define a practice philosophy that has applied to Dan's whole life.
"I remember her so many times saying, 'It's so simple. Take four bars at a time and learn 'em perfect. Take the next four bars - learn 'em perfect.' And she meant perfect. Then take those eight bars and put 'em together until they're perfect - step by step, a little bit at a time, using the right principles.
"It's a Mormon scripture - 'Line upon line, precept upon precept, little by little,' " he adds.
Dan also was influenced by his dad, who told him how much happier Dan would be if he'd choose not to smoke and drink - advice Dan latched on to after a couple of youthful encounters with those vices.
"I speak to a lot of youth groups," explains Dan. "And I talk about decisions. Even one small decision can take your life in a completely different path."
A Fateful Sign
Brian, the group's drummer, also learned some valuable lessons from his parents, although it took an emotional reminder to put him back on the right track.
"My mother was very involved in the church," recalls Brian. "I was raised with and around it, but you get exposed to certain things and you either grab on to it, or you run away from it."
Brian's dad, a butcher by trade, had always worked hard and made sure there was food on the table. He'd also had a long struggle with alcoholism, which eventually claimed his life at the age of 61, while Brian was playing in a band in south Florida.
After his dad's funeral, 26-year-old Brian had no job, no money and a sense that he'd just been "treading water" in his life. Then he recalled something he'd seen before his father's death.
"A guy was changing the message on the sign in front of a church I sometimes attended in Ft. Lauderdale," recalls Brian. "It said, would the boy you were be proud of the man you are? I had to drive home three more blocks through my tears - because the answer at that particular moment was no.
"Finally I said, 'OK, if I'm gonna do anything with this life, I better get after it.' "
Whether health-related or otherwise, each member of Diamond Rio has had challenges to overcome and decisions to make about the paths they'll take. But one constant is the outlook they share as a band.
"We've been blessed in that all of us put our hope in something a little greater than what's goin' on here on earth," declares Marty. "So, any problems we have individually have always drawn us tighter together rather than been wedges between us.
"And it's probably one of the reasons the idea of breaking up has never been even a blip on our radar screen."