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Diamond Rio's Marty Roe spends a special day in a special place

Story by David Scarlett & Photo by Bill Liebschutz

The best thing about this trip home is feeling like the folks I grew up with and spent the first 18 years of my life with - and actually helped form who I am - are proud of me," confesses Diamond Rio lead singer Marty Roe after spending a memorable day in his childhood home of Lebanon, Ohio.

He tries to get back several times a year, but this trip is definitely special. It's the first time Diamond Rio has performed in Marty's hometown since he left more than 20 years ago.

"This weekend was the bicentennial celebration for the city," he explains. "And I'm actually glad I didn't do it earlier in our career. I don't know if I would've appreciated it as much."

It's apparent that Marty does appreciate the way the hometown folks have embraced him, proclaiming the Friday of the show "Diamond Rio Day." That's not surprising, considering the loyalty he's shown to his roots and the incredible success of the band, currently riding high with "Beautiful Mess," the chart-topping debut single from their new Completely CD.

But, hits and success aside, nothing beats the feeling of pulling into the driveway of his parents, Zane and Bertie.

"The biggest thing I think about when I drive in is that it just seems peaceful," declares Marty. "And the memory of the good old days when it was much simpler. There aren't a whole lot of real-life worries when you're a kid.

"A couple of weeks before the show here, I came home and spent about four hours workin' on the tractor cuttin' Dad's grass - and loved every minute of it! They've got about five acres now.

"Growing up, we had close to 30 acres and farmed corn and had some hogs. My dad's a schoolteacher, and a real estate broker now, so in the summers, farming was secondary income."

Of course, a guy can't do any serious farm work - or put on a good concert - without a substantial breakfast. And Bertie has just what the doctor ordered!

The morning of the concert, Marty and a few of the other guys get off the bus and stop in for her traditional breakfast of eggs, sausage, homemade biscuits and sawmill gravy. "She makes it like no one else has ever made," he laughs. "She didn't do that every morning when I was growin' up, but she did it a lot when I was trying to gain weight for football."

When young Marty wasn't working the farm or playing sports - he was on the same track team with Woody Harrelson of Cheers - there's a good chance he had a guitar in his hand. In fact, it was almost a requirement!

"My family was very musical and you didn't feel like you were part of the family if you didn't pick up something and play and sing like the rest of 'em," he grins. "My dad's brother and his family had a band called the Carter City Music Makers from Carter City, Ky. They rented an old run-down storehouse, and every Saturday night they had a little shindig.

"That was my first experience getting in front of people and playing and singing, when I first learned to play the guitar. I was just a nervous wreck. But I wanted to do it. It was just being part of the family."

That first guitar is still at his folks' house, and it feels like an old friend in his hands. "My dad bought this Gibson in 1954," recalls Marty. "It was used when he got it and was the only guitar we had. Later I took it to Nashville and had a buddy completely redo it, new frets and all. It plays great.

"Dad made some records and had his own radio show in Moorehead, Ky., in the '50s when he was in college. Tom T. Hall was the DJ there. That's where my aspirations came from, no doubt.

"Dad was a huge Marty Robbins fan and named me after him. And every Christmas, Dad got a new Marty Robbins album. I bet we had 10 different albums with 'El Paso' on 'em. I think it's the law - every Marty Robbins album has to have that on it!"

After getting reacquainted with the old guitar, Marty has some special duties to perform, including singing the national anthem before a game at his old high school's football field. It's the first game Marty's seen there since he was a defensive end on the Lebanon Warriors team (which only lost one game in his last two years).

Rio buddies Dana Williams and Gene Johnson are along to sing harmonies, but the boys get a little unplanned exercise first.

"The school band always plays the anthem," explains Marty. "So they didn't have a microphone down at the field. And they introduced us and then said, 'The microphone's up in the press box.'

"So here we go, all the way up the steps. And I'm seeing all these people I know and shaking hands ... 'Hey! How you doin'?'

"And I'm thinkin', 'Man, I've gotta get up here. Everybody's waitin' on us to start this game!'" he laughs. "So we get in the press box and I'm all out of breath, but the anthem went fine."

Later, Marty spends time on the air with his former high school coach, Jim Van DeGrift, who does radio play-by-play for the games. Marty says the coach, who was seriously hurt in a tractor accident in 1997, is even more inspiring than he was back when Marty was on the field.

"He was burned pretty bad," says Marty quietly, "and if he hadn't been in such great shape, I don't think he would've made it. But he's doin' great now.

"And on the one-year anniversary of the accident, we went out and played golf. It was raining, but we had a very joyous round of golf."

The same could be said of Marty's homecoming concert at the fairgrounds.

"It was a fun evening," he smiles. "I got a chance to talk more than I normally do, told some stories about points of interest they would remember. I got my hair cut right across the road when I was a kid, and the Dairy Treat - where I had my first ice cream cone! - is catty-corner from the fairgrounds."

As the special evening winds down, Marty is surprised onstage with a beautiful painting - of his hometown. "It's actually a very pretty little town," he smiles.

"You know, they say you can't ever go home, but all these folks seem to be very happy for me. And I truly enjoyed growin' up here.

"It's a really good town."