Before the world had heard a note from King Calaway, the band received a thumping.
Two days after Stoney Creek announced the six-member group’s signing on Jan. 7, 2019, SavingCountryMusic.com delivered a blistering rebuke, dismissing it as “the product of snazzy marketing and nepotism.” The act caught the critique in the middle of shooting the video for its debut single, “World for Two,” and its reaction demonstrates its surety.
“We literally hadn’t even put out 30 seconds of music yet,” vocalist-guitarist Simon Dumas says. “Honestly, we laughed it off. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and that kind of stuff, then it could be really tough.”
King Calaway may well get the last laugh with “No Matter What.” Immensely hooky, the three-minute single is bathed in tight six-part harmonies with ever-changing production values, crisp pacing and an addictive optimism. Caleb Miller shreds a breakneck, loud-and-proud guitar solo, and Austin Luther kicks in an athletic bass part. The band members — which includes guitarist Chad Michael Jervis and drummer Chris Deaton — plays all their own instruments, with Dumas, Jervis and Jordan Harvey trading lead vocals in front of stacked harmonies.
“It’s like a choir when you have six guys singing together,” says Miller. “It really beefs up the tone of the song, and it just breathes life into everything.”
King Calaway owes its genesis to Guitar Center. Country Music Association Awards director Robert Deaton, a closet guitarist in his own right, noticed when he visited the store that scads of young, talented guys were playing with ferocity, but he wasn’t seeing that represented in country. He thought there was space for a group of such talented musicians, and he set out to find a few who had the requisite musical and personal chemistry.
The final lineup blends members from four states, plus Scotland and Gibraltar; three of them were already buddies who essentially recruited each other. That story isn’t much different from a 2019 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee whose members were introduced by a label executive.
“Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn did not know each other,” says Robert, who is Chris’ father. “They’re the biggest country music duo of all time.”
“No Matter What” originated with another ensemble of close friends at a writing session on Aug. 17, 2016. Singer-songwriters Devin Dawson and Mitchell Tenpenny are the best-known of those writers, joined by Paul DiGiovanni (“How Not To”), Andy Albert (“Good Girl”) and Jordan M. Schmidt (“God’s Country”). Albert brought the “No Matter What” title to the room, even though he had no specific story to go with it.
“It was just those four [syllables],” he says. “There’s something about it that felt very firm in the sentiment, even before we really defined what it was.”
Tenpenny and Dawson launched into compatible guitar parts, and Dawson sang the opening lines, setting up the hard times that preceded a commitment-worthy love. As “No Matter What” unfolded, everyone contributed to a jumble of puzzle pieces: two verses, a run-on chorus, a pre-chorus, a bridge and an altered version of the pre-chorus that might be considered a second bridge.
“It’s an interesting form,” says Dawson. “We were like, ‘I don’t know why this works, and I don’t know what to call this section and this section.’ But it keeps you listening.”
With five voices all chiming in, the creative process was both invigorating and chaotic, but much of it was done before lunch. The break gave them a little perspective, and when they returned to the writing room, they dropped a melodic run at the end of the chorus to repeat that staccato “no matter what.”
“We realized the catchiest part is just that ‘no matter what,’ like a little snare part,” says Dawson, “so we steered away from trying to make it this crazy melodic statement.”
Dawson sang a lead vocal for the demo, and they celebrated with a steak dinner at the end of the day, leaving Schmidt to pull the whole thing together.
“He took all the bits and pieces and was like, ‘All right, this feels like this should come next. And then what do we want here?’” says Albert. “I think he finalized the puzzle after the fact.”
Neither Dawson nor Tenpenny thought it fit their projects once they signed artist deals, and it got pitched around town. But when Deaton and co-producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Brett Eldredge) gathered material for King Calaway, they put it among roughly 30 songs to consider in July 2018. The band agreed unanimously to cut it.
“It had real instruments in it, room for lots of harmonies, and we just felt like we could definitely take that into a band room and make it our own,” says Miller.
They booked three weeks at the Soundcheck rehearsal space in Nashville, hashing out the parts and harmonies for nine songs along the way. They also randomly assigned vocal sections to the three lead singers, though Harvey’s Scottish enunciations caused problems with one phrase in the chorus, “No matter where you go/ I go back roads or highway.”
“We were all sitting in the control room, and we were like, ‘Honestly, I’m not really understanding what he’s saying,’” notes Miller. “So we flipped two lines, and Chad took the last line in the chorus.”
They recorded three songs a day at The Castle in Franklin, Tenn. Everyone in the room was fairly surprised at how smoothly the sessions went, especially since they played in the center of a single room instead of in individual booths. They had to be tightly coordinated to pull it off.
“Those guys are so talented,” says Copperman. “They just came in the studio, just rocked it. Not much overdubs, [mostly] just one take of them performing it together. It’s not like me programming stuff and adding things. It’s just them.”
In the process, the message of solidarity at the heart of “No Matter What” began to take on a meaning beyond its surface love story.
“As the song was coming together in the band room with the chorus lyrics, I would look around the room and be like, ‘We’re really in this together now, and we’re entering into something,’” says Dumas. “We’re going to come up against a lot of walls, and I feel really lucky and blessed that we have a song that almost can knock down the walls, at least for us in our heads.”
Stoney Creek released it to radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 27, with a number of stations expected to jump on it by the Feb. 23 add date. Thus, after getting slammed for simply arriving, King Calaway is set to make inroads with a hook-filled song about sticking it out, no matter what. Meanwhile, the band is changing skeptical minds just by letting the music speak for it.
“From the moment that they were announced to the public, we got six months of hate,” says Robert. But now, “I have people, friends of mine, going, ‘Yeah, I really didn’t want to like them, but I like them.’”
“No Matter What” showcases the harmonies, the optimism and the instrumental command that seems to be winning over those doubters.
“It’s so instrument-heavy,” says Dumas. “It’s really drilling home the fact that we’re a band, not just a group of singers.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.