- July 2000, Rhino Handmade Records

A collection of The Sky Kings previously unreleased 1997 Warner Brothers' album as well as 14 additional tracks from the Warner Brothers' archives.

The title comes with a slight nod towards the old Sky King television show ("from out of the Western Sky..)".  This package, however, is coming from out of the blue to anyone waiting on this music to arrive after so long.  The question that most frequently comes up when I'm asked about The Sky Kings is, "Oh yeah, whatever happened with that?".  I still wonder myself when looking back. It was a cool idea that turned into a project that turned into a real band that turned into a marketing plan geared for country radio that turned into six years without an album release.  A graph and pointer would be good right now.
     To recap The Sky Kings saga as succinctly as possible is my mission so here goes... It was 1988 and Radney Foster and I were headlong into our duo career. At that point we had written and recorded two self-produced albums for RCA records and enjoyed a string of country radio hits.  Whatever success that afforded us, we still had to play rodeos .. and that's where I met Rusty Young. Rusty, steel guitarist/singer-songwriter and founding member of Poco, was playing in Vince Gill's road band. Vince, our pal and a labelmate in those days, made the introduction and I was jazzed to meet Rusty as I was a longtime Poco fan. So there we all were sharing the bill amongst the cows, the cowboys, the bulls and the bullshit.  Radney, Rusty and I all agreed that we should do the Nashville kind of thing and write some songs together when we got back home. We eventually did, which led to Poco recording a Young /Foster/ Lloyd song called "Rough Edges" on their reunion album, "Legacy" in 1989.

     In 1991, after Foster and Lloyd ran it's course as a duo, I took on a gig as a talent scout for RCA's New York office. Based in Nashville, I was still writing songs and wanting to make records. Rusty and I had kept in touch and were soon talking about forming a one-off band with some other "country-rock guys". The Traveling Wilburys were big and the trend for veteran bands of "formerly ofs" was in the air, but our intentions were honorable. We didn't have any world domination plans to be the hillbilly version of Blind Faith. When Ken Levitan (who had managed F&L) and Josh Leo (then head of A & R at RCA Nashville) came on board, the vision was validated. With management, a producer and record label in place, all we needed were a couple more members.

     In the search for other like-minded musicians, there were a couple of false starts. I called Gene Clark's manager, Saul Davis, who I'd met a few years prior and asked him what Gene was up to. He gave me his number and I left a message on his machine but I never heard back. Gene, sadly, died only a couple of weeks later. Ex-Eagle and Poco member Randy Meisner actually flew in to town to talk with us about joining but he had second thoughts once he considered the work schedule and time table we were talking about. Well, that's what I remember anyway. He phoned in his change of heart once he got back to LA.

     My good friend, John Cowan, was on the loose since his band, New Grass Revival, called it quits after nearly 20 years. My musical relationship with John was longstanding. We had written songs together for several years and he consistantly appeared as a guest vocalist on Foster and Lloyd albums and my solo records. New Grass recorded a Foster and Lloyd tune and we often played sets of classic rock stuff in Nashville clubs for fun.  John was (and still is for that matter.. ) an icon in the bluegrass world. He has all the goods.. a singer with showstopping chops, a super bass player, and the looks the "wimmens" liked. We were fortunate when he agreed to join up with us. The pieces were coming together.

     Rusty heard The Doobie Brothers were on a break of sorts and that Patrick Simmons was eyeing Nashville. Pat was always a big part of The Doobie Brothers' acoustic/country-rock sound. The classic hit, "Black Water" was all his. He's a wonder of a guitarist-singer-songwriter. When we met with Pat, the personalities genuinely clicked. The Doobies manager, Bruce Cohn, came along for good measure. We had our band, a record label and two managers!

     For the next year and a half, we all hung-out a lot, wrote a good many songs, and began to cut a record for RCA-Nashville.  But midway through the recording of the album, our producer, Josh Leo, got the axe as head of A & R as did most everyone on the RCA-Nashville staff.  In the music biz, this kind of thing happens all the time.  Ask anyone.  Amazingly, the new regime at RCA agreed to let us finish the album.  But in the end, it became one of those "too pop for Nashville and too country for New York" scenarios with new personnel in both RCA offices unsure of what to do.  That's my take on it anyway ; there was no one at the label left who could say, "that's my project".  That record remains in the RCA vaults to this day.

     Crestfallen over the way our RCA deal ended, we still weren't ready to throw in the towel just yet. We truly wanted to play in a band together so we started to shop the album to other labels. We ended up signing a new record deal at Warner Bros. in 1993. It's from our four year affiliation with Warner Bros. where the music on "From Out of the Blue" comes from.

     Jim Ed Norman, President of Warner Bros.-Nashville signed us with some trepidation. He was not interested in picking up the RCA album, but wanted us to make an album with a mind towards country radio that featured one lead singer. The first album we made for RCA was more like a "band" record where songwriters sang their own stuff and everyone sang lead on a couple of songs. Those kind of records worked for other bands in the rock-pop world (The Band, C.S.N.& Y., Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles..)  but country corporate wisdom dictates that it creates too much confusion.  Alabama had one lead singer...Diamond Rio.. one singer.. it was almost a rule. A band vying for country radio takes a risk making a record with more than one lead vocalist. However, the new deal was in place and we all agreed that we would showcase John as our lead singer and try to write songs with him in mind.  Rusty, Pat and I would all get a shot to sing at least one song each. It was a different concept than what we started with but we were in agreement to give it a try. After writing and recording for six months, we turned in our first session to the label. They liked some of the new material but wanted us to go back and record some more. This would prove to be a common occurrence throughout our tenure at the label in the attempt to make the band "radio ready".

     In the meantime, we hit the road as an opening act of the reformed Doobie Brothers in August of 1993.  Both John and Pat pulled double-duty as John played bass for the Doobies.  We called ourselves "Four Wheel Drive" that summer until threatened with lawsuits from bands who had copyrighted the name previously in their own states.  After bandying about dozens of band names, Pat suggested the name The Sky Kings, which seemed to stick.  To avoid further legal snafus, Warner Brothers and our lawyers successfully haggled with the heirs to the Sky King television show to secure the rights to the Sky Kings name.

     We continued recording as a foursome after the tour, but it soon became evident that Pat was feeling the pull of his old band. The Doobie Brothers were active again and Pat had always been the one constant throughout the various incarnations of the band.  Pat gracefully bowed-out of The Sky Kings to return to The Doobies.  Rusty, John, and I pressed on and finished recording the album over the next year.  Warner Brothers finally said they were ready to put us out into the marketplace. It had now been four years since the band started.

     In 1996, we hit the road again while waiting for the release of our album.  Our live band included Fran Breen, who had played drums with Nanci Griffith and The Waterboys, and Peter Hyrka from Human Radio, who served as our "utility guy," playing violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar and keyboards.  Fans still send me bootleg recordings of some of our shows which remind me that we really had some great gigs.  It was also during this period that Warner Brothers sent us out on a radio promotion tour, a standard practice for all acts being marketed to country radio.  We visited radio stations coast to coast and played acoustic sets to anyone who would listen.  We also filmed a video for our first single, "Picture Perfect," which had a nice run on CMT.

     Though it felt good that we were finally promoting the album, there were signs of problems.  While "Picture Perfect" had made the singles chart, radio programmers weren't coming around despite the deejays' declaration of fanhood and apparent support.  In addition, the album was not commercially released along with the first single; only promo cds and cassettes were distributed to country radio. This "wait and see" attitude at Warner Brothers took some of the wind out of our sails.

     A second shot with the commercially available single, "That Just About Says It All," felt like a postive step, but without the support of a video or any kind of advertising, it came and went quickly. Feeling like there was nothing left on the album to go back to country radio with, the label requested we cut three more sides including a remake of "Fooled Around and Fell in Love". By the time it was delivered, we were clearly off the radar.  Without the blessing of country radio, Warner Brothers would not release The Sky Kings album.  We did a final acoustic show at The Bluebird Cafe in 1997 and called it quits.  I think we were almost relieved it was over.

     Suffice to say that the music biz has its share of acts that look good on paper, sound good on record, and even have an existing fan base, but if it doesn't catch on with radio programmers, it's regarded as unmarketable.  Country radio is a hard nut to crack.  At the major labels in Nashville, it's the only game in town.  Alternative marketing is more often considered a black hole; a waste of time and money.  When a label pulls the plug on the whole enchilada, it's not that surprising.  So now when someone asks me, "What happened with that"... that's what happened.

     As for me, I believed in our musical chemistry to the point that I wanted to play out every hand ... even after the casino closed.  I didn’t want to believe that we weren't really in the game.  Yet in the end, I still found a good many things to appreciate:  I wrote and played music with a band of musicians that I had admired for years; I experienced great moments on the road and in the studio with amazing session players and star sidemen such as Leon Russell and Al Kooper (now you can read the credits!); and, most importantly, I forged lifelong friendships with Rusty, John and Pat; quality guys who I continue to write and work with as often as possible (although Pat's move out of the continental United States has made it a challenge--thank you e-mail!). On a personal front, I also got to spend time at home with my family which is a something many working musicians don't always get to enjoy.

     As for the music from this Warners period, I think you'll find songs and performances here that don't sound as overly-crafted as I may have led you to believe by my earlier comments. We managed to sound like ourselves despite a record deal where we agreed to chase a radio format. Whether it worked at radio or not, we ended up finding a vocal blend that typified our band sound. John singing lead, Rusty on high harmony and me taking the low harmonies. Add in the overplaying that we all believe to be essential and you've got The Sky Kings sound.

     Rhino Handmade has resourcefully included the original lineup of songs for The Sky Kings/Warner Brothers album, the extra single, the Christmas song, the out-takes, and even some demos. There's easily a couple of albums worth of tracks.  I hope this pleases those who have been waiting on this album.  Much thanks to Rhino Handmade for their interest in seeing it released.
 

Bill Lloyd
May 2000