It's a familiar story: A country music band has a good two or three years of hits, then starts to fade. The record company bails out. After struggling awhile on the road, they call it quits.
After hits in the late 1980s such as "Midnight Girl-Sunset Town" and "Satisfy You," Sweethearts of the Rodeo were on that path. Then Janis Gill and Kristine Arnold realized something - bands break up, but sisters don't."We didn't know what else to do (except break up)," said Gill. "It was a very depressing time because the dates had dwindled to doing private corporation parties, where they don't know who you are. And we were tired of looking at each other and being on the road all those years."
However, the potential breakup was softened by a plan for Arnold to go solo - with her sister as producer. The next step was realizing they didn't need to change company, just their career priorities.
A friend told Gill about bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records, based in Durham, N.C.
"We could do this great little album and have fun and something to do while we're figuring out what to do," Gill said. "It was the most therapeutic thing we could have ever done."
The result was "Rodeo Waltz," a relaxed, acoustic album that puts the sisters' sweet harmonies in the best musical context of all their albums. "Rodeo Waltz" surveys the musical influences of the sisters, who named their band after the seminal country-rock album by the Byrds.
Songs by Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Jesse Winchester and the Louvin Brothers are on the record, as are originals by Gill and her husband, country superstar Vince Gill. The players are acoustic all-stars such as Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and Roy Huskey Jr.
Gill always had had a keen interest in the studio process, eventually splitting production duties with CBS producer Steve Buckingham on the later Sweetheart albums for that label. One of her first decisions was that the sisters would sing together in the studio; she thought their last CBS album sounded "detached" because they separately recorded their vocals.
The charming little album has been out almost a year, and the loss of major label promotion has been compensated by Sugar Hill's long-term dedication.
"There is a time limit placed on your album when you're on a major label and you're a radio act," Gill said. "You get three singles, I guess it's now probably two singles, and if you don't get it happening up the charts, the album's dead. We're very fortunate not to have to worry about those time frames."
"At first we thought it (Sugar Hill) was like an interim type of a deal," Arnold said. "But we've fallen into something that feels so good that I don't think we want to get out of it. It's so comfortable being in this position without the pressures of the big labels, without the pressures of trying to get on country radio.
"We feel like it's just the beginning, because we can do as much of this as we want."