April 2006 cover of CCM Magazine

In 2006, I was working as the editorial assistant for CCM Magazine. We had a small conference room in the center of our office where we conducted meetings. Covers of issues gone by lined the walls of that room, where those cover decisions were made. We often had artists visit our offices and play short acoustic sets for our staff. On one of these particular visits in early 2006, EMI (now Capitol CMG) asked if they could  bring a new band to our office. As the editorial assistant, I set these meetings up.

A few weeks later, with pizza in tow, the folks at EMI visited our office, and our staff crammed into our tiny conference room to meet four wide-eyed boys from a no-name town in South Carolina–brothers Bear and Bo Rinehart and longtime friends Seth Bolt and Joe Stillwell.

They played a few of their new songs for us from their forthcoming debut called Daylight. To say we were impressed would be an understatement. Blown away would be more accurate. It was hard to pinpoint that day exactly what they possessed, but whatever it was, they had the “it” factor written all over them, and they had everyone in that room spellbound. Not only was it obvious that their musicianship was leaps and bounds beyond that of even some of the most established artists, but it was evident their motives were solid. That day, the Rinehart brothers & Co. couldn’t have been more humble, gracious and kind.

We tried to play it cool while they were there, but as soon as they left the office, this new band with an odd name (that we weren’t even sure how to write in print) was all we could talk about. The decision was made pretty quickly to make them the face of our upcoming annual “It” issue, where the cover story would highlight the best new artists releasing debuts that year. It would be released during GMA Week. It was our biggest issue of the year. It was a risky move.

In the cover story by John J. Thompson, frontman Bear Rinehart said, “I want [the band] to have the kind of year that Switchfoot or Maroon 5 or The Killers had… I’d be stupid not to have that as a goal.” EMI Vice President of A&R Brad O’Donnell was quoted as saying, “Those guys—maybe more than any artists I’ve encountered—have an unbelievable work ethic and are ready to do anything it takes to have a significant career.”

In the same issue, our editor, Jay Swartzendruber, personally reviewed Daylight writing, “Simply put, Daylight is so deep on potential rock radio singles, the disc would make a good ‘best of’ album for a lot of other bands. (Did I mention this is a debut?)… ” Ironically, his only complaint was the band’s lack of lyrical depth, which was possibly Daylight‘s only sore spot.

“Many aficionados who relish thoughtful, compelling songwriting will be left wanting… If you thrive on poignant wordplay or memorable storytelling, you’ll need to look elsewhere,” Swartzendruber wrote. “The good news, here, is NEEDTOBREATHE’s lyricism shows significant potential. And given the artful approach the band takes with its music, you can’t help but hope for a legacy defined by songs every bit as memorable for what they communicate as for how great they sound.”

NEEDTOBREATHEWhen the issue hit newsstands, as expected, we received a plethora of comments and questions from publicists and managers wondering why we didn’t put a “big” artist on the cover instead of this band no one had heard of. As for the members of NEEDTOBREATHE, they were beside themselves that they were on the cover of a real magazine.

And then their debut released. And…crickets. We held our breath, hoping we wouldn’t have to eat a lot of crow. Daylight saw minimal success and wasn’t quite the launch EMI nor the band expected. The label eventually parted ways with the band, and they signed a new Christian distribution deal with Word, in addition to their mainstream deal with Atlantic. With their sophomore effort, The Heat, things started heating up for the band, as single “More Time” gained traction at mainstream radio and “Washed by the Water” became a hit at Christian radio. However, they still hovered between two genres, remaining a square peg in a round hole in both Christian and secular circles.

Then, in 2009, the band released The Outsiders, and the tables turned in their favor. The members had finally found their sound and the lyrical genius that they lacked in the early days. They gained a loyal following, became a staple at Christian radio and even won multiple “Group of the Year” Dove Awards. And then Taylor Swift called… The secret was out. NEEDTOBREATHE was no longer the dark horse.

When The Reckoning released in 2011, fans were ready. And that’s when we proudly dug out our old issues of CCM and held that April 2006 cover up with pride, all the while smirking that we were the first ones to say they had that “it” factor born out of pure raw talent. Thank you very much.

As their star began to rise, the band admits to having trouble staying grounded. The past two years have been wrought with internal turmoil between the members, with Stillwell even departing the band. Tensions mounted and left the Rinehart brothers not speaking to each other at one point, wondering if they should just call it quits altogether. Fans (myself included) are immensely grateful they didn’t give up.

Needtobreathe CoverToday, the band releases its highly-anticipated fifth studio album, Rivers In the Wasteland. It’s the direct result of forgiveness, redemption and getting back to the root of where it all began. The album is a return to form for the band who started playing music in college simply because they  loved it.

Since that day long ago in the CCM conference room, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the band a handful of times. I’m always impressed by their authenticity and gratitude. And anytime they come to Nashville, without a doubt, you will find me in the audience. If you haven’t seen them live, do yourself a favor and find a show near you. If you don’t own their music, head to iTunes now. (You can purchase their new album here.)

They may not have had a first year like Switchfoot or The Killers, but sometimes it takes time for a band to find its identity and for fans to realize the real thing when they hear it. Sometimes slow and steady does win the race. In one way, they’ve come so far from that group of innocent young boys chasing down a dream, growing into a high-profile band that’s performed on all of the late night TV shows and opened for one of the biggest acts in pop/country music (Swift); but in many ways–in character, integrity and raw talent–they’re still very much that same little band crammed into the corner of that conference room.

You can download the April 2006 NEEDTOBREATHE issue here. Browse other back issues of CCM Magazine here.