Emerson Drive just can’t stay in park

The country group is touring and talking beside its producer, a former University student

Katrina Wilber

Emerson Drive doesn’t exactly have the stereotypical look of country musicians.

Among them, the group wore a Hollister shirt, a track jacket and a faded Vikings jersey. Yeah, one had a cowboy hat. But another had a newsboy hat. The guys looked more like Urban Outfitters models than country artists with three albums under their not-so-Western belts.

And they definitely didn’t look like they’d spent the past month living on a bus.

“The tour never really ends,” said lead vocalist Brad Mates.

But their middle-of-March stop in Minnesota to perform on a local television station’s morning show is only one of hundreds in their February to December tour schedule. Their agenda for March, for example, had them playing in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois.

The band struggles to find time to see family back in Canada.

That’s right, Canada. There are more than 2,400 miles between their hometown of Grande Prairie, Alberta, and the country music mecca of Nashville, Tenn. There they had a grand total of two radio stations when the six were growing up: a rock station and a country station.

“There was no second-guessing ourselves when it came to which style we were going to play,” Mates said.

Mates and a few of the others started performing 10 years ago while still in high school. They’d make a couple of trips to Nashville every year but mostly played smaller gigs until they signed with Dreamworks six years later; that debut album produced two hit singles. They now have released their third album and stopped in Minneapolis to promote it.

Emerson Drive’s list of accolades is impressive: 2003 Academy of Country Music’s Top New Vocal Group/Duo, 2002 Billboard’s No. 1 Top Country Artist of the Year and two-time Group of the Year from the Canadian Country Music Association, among others. The band has had two top-five hits with “Fall Into Me” and “I Should Be Sleeping.” Oh, and don’t forget earning the No. 1 spot on CMT for the music video for “Fall Into Me.”

But the story of Emerson Drive’s rise to the top can’t be told without mentioning their producer, Keith Follese. Born and raised in Golden Valley, Follese was a University student for a short time, but left because there were no courses on writing country songs.

He spent some time in Los Angeles before heading to Nashville where he had his first hit with “Before You Kill Us All,” a song he wrote for Randy Travis. He knew he’d made it as a songwriter when he heard that first song on the radio, but the doubtful attitude toward his success never really goes away.

“I’m still embarrassed to say I’m in music,” he admitted.

And this is from a guy who’s now a major producer and the force behind Emerson Drive’s latest album.

The band had parted ways with their previous label when Follese’s independent label Midas Records Nashville heard them. Despite that the label focuses on breaking new groups, the label picked them up.

“But these guys were too good to pass up,” said Follese, who produced half the album and now is on tour with them.

Emerson Drive spent a year and a half on the third album, which they say goes back to the roots of country music.

“We were young kids when we made our first album,” guitarist Danick Dupelle said. “Our second album is a little more on the pop side, but this third one takes us back.”

Mates said, “We’ve been away from home since we were 17, and we’ve spent five years in Nashville. It’s hard to find a balance between being on the road and being home.”

They play at fairs and festivals, bars and as opening acts for larger concerts. They – along with Follese – agree they shouldn’t get paid to have so much fun.

“Country music is a true American art form,” Follese said, “and it’s finally starting to be recognized for what it really is.”