A few years ago, Chandler Baldwin, the bass player in the rising country band LANCO, met Randy Owen, lead singer of the group Alabama. One of the best-selling acts in the history of country music, Alabama is also an outlier: a band in a genre dominated by soloists. Owen told Baldwin, 25, that Alabama once won an award at a show where the podium was too small to fit an entire group. “Who’s the guy in the band that’s going to stand and accept the award?” a producer wondered. “Randy was like, ‘We’re all “the guys,”‘ recounts Baldwin. “So all four of them crammed together on the podium as they won.”
Growing up, singer Brandon Lancaster was partial to Loggins & Messina, drummer Tripp Howell to Kings of Leon and Baldwin himself to Bad Company. But they all shared a staunch commitment to the band ideal. “I believe in the cohesiveness that a band can bring,” says Lancaster, 28. “Randy Owen can write ‘Dixieland Delight,’ but put him with Alabama, and it’s Alabama.”
Before LANCO got together, Lancaster had been writing songs, but he struggled to bring them to life. “A lot of guys get publishing deals, get gigs and pay players to do shows on the weekends,” he explains over the phone during a rare three-day break in touring. (“I’ve gotten to do incredible things, like laundry!” he quips about his time off.) “I met with some guitar players early on who were like, ‘My day rate is $250,’” continues Lancaster. “But I couldn’t even pay my rent. A band made it easier — we could all just be poor together.”
He met Howell in 2012, when both were performing in separate bands at a Cleveland, Tenn., festival. “We’re unloading the van, and I hear this dude screaming like he was playing a headlining Bonnaroo slot,” recalls Howell, 28, of hearing Lancaster onstage. Shortly afterward, the two moved to Nashville and started playing together. They later connected with guitarist Eric Steedly, 27, who brought in keyboard player Jared Hampton, also 27, and Baldwin.
Country’s current landscape is full of solo stars, duos and vocal groups like Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum. Despite — or perhaps because of — this lack of popular country bands, LANCO has found stunning success, climbing to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart last December with its nostalgic ballad “Greatest Love Story,” which has sold 556,000 digital copies, according to Nielsen Music. Its debut album, Hallelujah Nights — an appealing collection of songs touching on country, top 40 pop, Mumford & Sons arena folk and sprawling Southern rock — bowed at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums tally upon its January release, the first album by a group to do so in a decade.
In 2014, Lancaster was working a concession stand at a Keith Urban and Little Big Town concert when he spied producer Jay Joyce — known for his work with adventurous country stars like Eric Church and Brandy Clark — strolling by, promptly closed up shop and ran after Joyce to introduce himself. Joyce invited Lancaster, then the whole band, to his studio for a 10-day recording session.
With bootleg CDs of its album in hand, LANCO piled into a 1998 Winnebago and hit the road. “We were living off gas-station hot dogs and just breaking even with shows,” says Lancaster. “It was more of a rock mentality than a country mentality.” But, as Howell recalls, the band “built a following in the Southeast,” and when it returned to play in Nashville, Sony offered it a record deal.
A national audience didn’t follow immediately: LANCO’s lead single, “Long Live Tonight,” released in early 2016, stalled out short of the top 30 on the Country Airplay chart. But its follow-up, “Greatest Love Story,” proved irresistible to radio. The rest of Hallelujah Nights ranges from buoyant synth-pop to swampy blues to a propulsive title track so speedy that Howell says his “arms and legs damn near fell off recording it.” Newest single “Born to Love You” has the kind of fist-pumping chorus that calls to mind Coldplay’s anthems. This summer, the band will test that sound in amphitheaters when it opens for Dierks Bentley on tour.
“We have a home base in country music, but we like Kings of Leon and The Killers and alternative rock, too,” says Lancaster. “‘You should put a banjo on it’ — who gets to define that? Why can’t we put a synth on it?” Already, his band’s success with that approach has won admirers among its peers. “It’s a rare thing to be able to stick together after years in a rundown RV, paving your way one mile at a time,” says The Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne. “That’s the dream every musician has when they first pick up an instrument. LANCO is proof that the dream is still alive and well.”
This article originally appeared in the March 31 issue of Billboard.