Emerson Drive

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"Ours is the Mt. Everest of work ethics," says Emerson Drive bassist Jeff Loberg, summing up the steadfast determination and get-the-job-done energy of this country band. It's a bold statement, but Loberg and his five bandmates have no doubt earned the right to make it. "We're the essence of road warriors," he insists.

That ethos goes a long way toward explaining the success of an outfit that got its start in the western Alberta town of Grande-Prairie. Nothing will make or break a band like the road, and few have been forged in that crucible as fully as Emerson Drive.

"It's what you've got to do," remarks singer Brad Mates matter-of-factly. "I consider these guys as talented as any musicians I've ever run across, but talent will only take you so far. What made this work was the willingness to say goodbye to everything and just hit the highway."

They traveled in an old bus and then in a van, playing small and large clubs, to handfuls of people and packed houses, in tiny villages and big cities throughout Canada.

So when Emerson Drive hit Nashville after six years, they were ready. "We'd been rehearsing four hours in the afternoon and playing as much as seven hours a night, five nights a week for two years solid," says Jeff. "We knew we were jelling. It just felt right, like this is who we are. I knew that if no one got what we were doing when we did our Nashville showcases, then no one was ever going to get it."

"And as it turned out," reports fiddle player Pat Allingham, "DreamWorks heard us and offered us a deal, and it just felt like we were meant to be part of that family." Indeed, DreamWorks Records executives, led by label head James Stroud, got it. Their post-showcase directive to the band, to capture what they heard live, rang like a manifesto, coming as it did in the wake of those grueling tours.

The result is Emerson Drive, which Stroud himself produced, with co-producer Julian King. ("Fall Into Me" and "How Lucky I Am" were produced by singer-songwriter Richard Marx, who has also produced tracks for Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers, SHeDAISY, Chely Wright and Shane Minor, among many others.) It demonstrates the band's finely honed instrumental skills and decidedly edgy repertoire, but perhaps more importantly, it conjures the excitement that has made Emerson Drive so popular with crowds all over Canada and now, increasingly, in the U.S. Songs like "Looking Over My Shoulder" and "It's All About You" are high-voltage fun, while "I See Heaven," "Only God (Could Stop Me Loving You)" and "Light Of Day" bring romance and lush harmonies to the mix.

The release of Emerson Drive (on May 21, 2002) is an auspicious moment in the history of a band that began with a high school talent contest. There, Pat and his pal (and now Emerson keyboardist) Chris Hartman - the two had been in school and church choirs together since kindergarten - joined a few buddies to form an impromptu group doing an equally impromptu song. Also on the bill was Brad, an 11th-grader singing for the first time in front of an audience. Pat, Chris and Brad quickly recognized their mutual talents and tastes, and the three soon formed a band with some classmates.

"It really got started in my parents' basement," says Brad. As they began rehearsing, they'd often indulge in teenage chatter about becoming singing stars, but, he concedes, "We had no idea it would ever build into something like this."

In fact, Brad's musical background was casual. He'd soaked up both his dad's Don Williams and George Strait albums, as well as the hard rock favored by his junior high buddies. Chris' was a bit more formal. He came from a large family who'd sing harmonies around the kitchen table, and he received classical piano training. Pat, too, had a serious interest in music, playing classical violin from the age of three and performing in orchestras and at festivals during his growing-up years.

This trio formed the core of a seven-piece ensemble that played a couple of local gigs, including an awards show where they took in $300 just by passing the hat. A few months later they were joined by Jeff, from nearby Beaverlodge. Jeff's dad had introduced him early on to the music of Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson, whereas he discovered Southern rock on his own. Jeff played guitar from the age of eight. "When I joined the band," he informs, "I'd never played bass in my life. But the guys needed a bass player, so I figured I'd give it a try."

The band's initial attitude toward their career was similarly carefree. "We just wanted to go out and have some fun," Chris attests. They'd cut class on Fridays to set up for that evening's show at a local club and watch as their underage friends tried unsuccessfully to sneak in.

But they soon began to take matters more seriously. They settled on six members, used parental donations to buy a school bus they painstakingly but lovingly converted to tour-worthiness - "It was a cool little party pad for a couple of years," says Chris - chose the name 12-Gauge and began touring the sparsely populated region. "Almost anywhere you went involved a long ride," says Brad.

Pat's father, Lionel Allingham, managed the band for their first three years, helping them raise funds for demo recordings and making connections for performance dates. "It all happened in stages," Pat says of their early progress. "People started noticing us and we started doing showcases."

One particular industry showcase brought them into contact with Gerry Leiske, who was then managing a band called Farmer's Daughter. That group boasted a guitar player named Danick Dupelle who was looking for a change. He warmed to the idea of joining 12-Gauge.

Danick's parents were musicians who, he says, "used to bring me to gigs and stash me behind an amplifier." By the age of three, the Quebec native was belting out "Blue Suede Shoes," a song Emerson Drive performs today. Danick's father gave him a guitar and showed him a few chords, and the youngster set to work, joining his parents' band at the age of 11. He spent his teen years playing festivals and honky-tonks. Danick traveled the world with Farmer's Daughter, opening for the likes of Kenny Rogers and Vince Gill, among others. But, at Leiske's request, he came to Grande-Prairie to meet the boys in 12-Gauge. "I thought, 'Wow! These guys have great harmonies,'" he recalls of his first impression. When they asked him to join the band, he jumped at the chance (though only after completing a Farmer's Daughter album then in progress).

The final piece in the Emerson Drive puzzle was drummer Mike Melancon, another French-Canadian, from the town of Mont Laurier, two hours north of Montreal. "My dad's a biker and a rock 'n' roller," he says of his background, "so I grew up listening to Black Sabbath and AC/DC." Mike started playing drums in high school, then moved to Montreal to study the instrument, playing in cover bands on the bar circuit until his old buddy Danick called asking him to join 12-Gauge.

The early days of Mike's membership were interesting ones. "He couldn't speak a word of English," Pat explains. "We basically communicated through music. After he came in, we rehearsed for four days, got the show together and performed for 3,000 people at a rodeo in Vancouver."

Leiske was in the audience that night and, duly impressed by the band's new incarnation, signed on as their manager. The sextet renamed itself Emerson Drive, after the Emerson Trail, which crosses western Alberta and joins the Alaskan Highway. Then they hit the road - hard.

"We'd already done a lot of touring, but we had no idea what we were in for," says Pat. "Gerry threw us out on the road and we traveled from week to week. We only got home for Christmas and maybe for a little break in the summertime. It was tough, but it's what made the band what it is today." Remarks Brad: "Making music is great, but you've got to find out if you can live together, and we've been able to do that in this form for three years. It's a very special thing."

The band not only survived, but thrived on the road, even weathering the demise of their bus with grace. "It broke down eight hours from home, and we couldn't afford to have it towed," Brad continues. "We left it in Calgary and sold it at auction four months later for $300. But it cost us $200 for storage, and we'd just put on $800 worth of new tires!" They replaced the beloved old vehicle with a 15-seat van that has yet to break down but which has been broken into, resulting in the loss of $40,000 in equipment.

Still, no amount of tough luck can dim the luster that comes with attaining the goal of a record deal and tackling the next objective - making Emerson Drive a success.

Says Pat: "We've got the chance now to go out and play for people who will be coming especially to hear our music, and that's when you realize you're getting to live your dream."

The members of Emerson Drive now live in Nashville, where they look forward to becoming part of the U.S. country music scene. They can't wait to get back in the van, travel across the 50 states and meet a whole new family of fans and friends.

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