By Gerry L. Dickert
Lamar State College Port Arthur

When a young Larry Stewart pointed his car in the direction of Nashville, Tennessee, unlike generations of country music dreamers, he sought a future on the baseball diamond. Little could he know then that his future would hold platinum and gold as he and a group of perfectly harmonized singers known as Restless Heart set aflame a new movement in country music.

Stewart grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, a relatively small town where the school district and Walmart serve as two of its biggest employers. Amid the late-70s sounds of disco and R&B, Larry graduated and pursued his dreams of playing college baseball. He won a scholarship to play at Belmont University in Nashville. Once there, the hand of fate urged Larry away from the baseball field and into the music studio.

After finding work as a demo singer in the early 1980s, he joined the group Restless Heart at the recommendation of the band’s keyboardist Dave Innis, with whom Larry had attended college.

“When we all came together, we just got in the studio and came up with this sound,” he said. “When all of us sang together, it was really pretty unique. The Eagles were the only group I can remember at the time that was singing five-part harmony.

“When we created this vocal sound, it was truly magical. There’s just no other word for it.”

Between 1985 and 1993, that magic would produce 18 Top 40 singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, including six consecutive No. 1 hits.

“Country music was exploding at the time and of course, we wanted to be part of that,” Stewart said. “I don’t know that we were really trying to create a new sound. We were just looking for our sound.”

This movement would later be called “neo-country” and the critics often panned the music as too contemporary, too pop, for a music genre that at time was being defined by George Strait, The Judds and Randy Travis.

“Our sound was contemporary, we wore mullets for goodness sakes,” he said. “Critics didn’t like that.”

But the fans did.

Restless Heart filled stadiums and their songs found a home on country music radio. Between 1986 and 1988, Restless Heart charted six consecutive No. 1 songs – “That Rock Won’t Roll”, “I’ll Still Be Loving You”, “Why Does It Have to Be (Wrong or Right)”, “Wheels”, “The Bluest Eyes in Texas”, and “A Tender Lie”.

“It was an incredible time in our lives,” Stewart said.

But things changed and the individual personalities that made up Restless Heart began to pull apart.

“You’re trying to search out your purpose and the direction you’re trying to go and then you add four more opinions, four more personalities, and it’s not the easiest thing to handle, especially when you’re young,” he said. “After a while, it was like, ‘I’ve had enough,’ and we were tired of the pulling and tugging.”

So in 1991, Stewart set out on his own.

“I was probably too dumb to be scared,” he said of his split with Restless Heart. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was a crazy time in country music and I thought, if I’m going to do this, I need to do it now.”

Though he didn’t enjoy the same success he had with Restless Heart, his first single, “Alright Already”, topped out at No. 5, giving him the first of a string of Top 100 singles over the next six years.

“I got to do some of the music I wanted to do,” he said. “I don’t regret taking that opportunity.”

By 2004, the five friends of Restless Heart – more experienced and more mature – reunited and produced the album “Still Restless”. For their 30th anniversary in 2013, the group began a “30 Years & Still Restless Tour” and the group still performs as many as 80 dates a year around the country.

Still free to pursue solo projects, “The Front Men of Country” was an outcropping of friendships Stewart had made over three decades of performing.

“It’s basically a songwriter in the round approach where single artists team up to perform together,” he explained. “I was in Baton Rouge doing a fundraiser about five years ago when the idea came up. It’s a group of lead singers who come together to do a stripped down acoustic version of our songs. I thought, ‘This is a great idea!’”

The show originally included Stewart, Tim Rushlow of Little Texas and Randy Owen of the group Alabama. Marty Rowe of Diamond Rio has made appearances, as will Billy Dean when The Front Men of Country perform for the Gulf Coast Gala in Port Arthur on Saturday, April 29.

“This will be the last Front Men show until September,” Stewart said. “The performances are very intimate but there’s a great deal of energy in the room.

“I’m very lucky to be able to play music for a living. Having the opportunity to sit with an audience and explain some of the inspiration behind the songs we perform is a lot of fun. I look forward to it every time we play.”