HIP TO BE SQUARE

It's a few hours before showtime at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va., and the four members of Lonestar are settling in to a backstage lounge.

Across the room, two teenage employees are making a small racket as they open up the snack-bar counter. Everyone ignores this - except Lonestar lead singer Richie McDonald, who glowers menacingly in the girls' direction before erupting like a volcano.

"Hey!" he bellows fearsomely. "Can y'all keep it down?!" The workers squirm, unsure how to react to this over-the-top, downright mean outburst.

Suddenly Richie breaks the awkward silence by dissolving into a fit of laughter. He was just kidding. "You look so nice in the videos," cracks one of the relieved snackshop girls.

Well, Richie and his Lonestar bandmates are nice. What you see is what you get - four hardworking, clean-living, not-quite-middle-aged husbands and fathers who could easily be mistaken for a bunch of suburban neighbors at a backyard barbecue or Little League game.

"I jokingly call us 'the lamest band in country music,' " says keyboardist Dean Sams. "We don't go out and do drugs or steal horses, or all these things everybody else does."

Indeed, this is a band that once celebrated a platinum album by whooping it up not with strippers and beer, but ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

"I think it's who we are," says guitarist Michael Britt. "If we went out of our way to be controversial, or try to be someone else, it wouldn't be us. We're just normal people, and we don't presume to be anything other than that. To do something else than what we do would be acting."

It's not as if Lonestar's decided un-edginess is holding them back. Eight years after their arrival on the scene, the Texas natives marked their runaway success this year with the greatest-hits collection From There to Here. The album, which has already sold a half-million copies, features plenty of their specialty: hearttugging, crowd-pleasing ballads that pay tribute to home and hearth.

"We're very secure with being known for the ballads," says Michael. "People call them 'power ballads,' and the fact that there's power in what we do is pretty important to us. They don't just lay there - they're songs that really reach people and affect them."

Ballad hits like the father-to-son tearjerker "I'm Already There" - as well as their recent lively chart-topper, "My Front Porch Looking In" - reflect the band's real priorities these days. Three of the four members are married, and there are seven kids running around when their families get together.

"Our lives have definitely changed over the years," says Richie. "Our priorities have changed. It used to be about fame and fortune, but I know now that it's all about our families. We put our families first."

"Our kids have got to look up to us somehow," points out drummer Keech Rainwater. "Imagine if your kid was like, 'Hey, my dad got another tattoo and he's in jail now!' I'd rather be known as somebody with a good message than somebody who's hard-edged and in trouble all the time."

Maybe that's because they know what - and who - really matters when the headlines fade and the TV crews pack up and go home.

"When everyone's through patting you on the back and telling you how great you are, and then turning their backs to you," says Dean, "it's your family that's going to be loving you no matter what."

-- JENNIFER MENDELSOHN

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