CROCKETTSVILLE — The video for Halfway to Hazard's newest single is a buoyant, smiling summary of the band's identity.
"Next thing I know I'm way back in the holler; my line's in the water where the water runs deep; I can't help but believe — I know where heaven is," the rising country duo sings from the back of a rock truck on top of a surface coal mine, interspersed with homey footage of David Tolliver's and Chad Warrix's families having a back-yard picnic and riding ATVs in the Eastern Kentucky mountains.
After several years paying dues, working hard and trying to make it in Nashville, Tolliver and Warrix found success in 2007 with a Top 40 single and the major-label release of their self-titled first album. The pair, whose fan base is growing, will perform this weekend at the Mountain Heritage Festival in Whitesburg.
"We're a 10-year overnight success," says Warrix, 34, the one with the curly hair and sparkling belt buckle.
A shared passion for music
Always wanting to be a rock star, he grew up in the 1980s and '90s, playing basketball and riding ATVs in the hills of Breathitt County. He listened to Journey, Foreigner and Led Zeppelin on the radio, not to mention the "classic country gold" that permeated the airwaves then. In eighth grade he picked up a guitar and started playing in the high school band, said his dad, Lewis Warrix, a former coal miner who owns the Jiffy Mart in Jackson. His band director thought he had talent, and from then on, music was Chad Warrix's goal.
In 1993, he left home to study the music business at Belmont University in Nashville.
In the meantime, David Tolliver was growing up two counties away in Hindman.
"I spent the better part of my childhood in a tuxedo and a Winnebago," Tolliver, also 34, says, waving at his mom backstage last month at the band's annual Halfway to Hazard Charity Trail Ride and Concert in Crockettsville. The first thing he ever sang was Away in a Manger at a church pageant. He was 6, and his parents — his dad was a contractor and gas station owner, his mom worked for the circuit judge — recognized his talent and took him on the road, booking school events and festivals all over the region. He says his breakout song was the Stevie Wonder hit I Just Called to Say I Love You, sung at his sister's Miss Knott County Pageant.
Music took a back seat to basketball and other fun at June Buchanan High School at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, but he came to realize while at the University of Kentucky that music was his passion. So he moved to Nashville.
As Tolliver became involved in writing, getting a contract with EMI, Warrix was forming an alternative rock band called Sodium. It did well in the Midwest, Lewis Warrix said, but struggled on the coasts. After releasing a single and getting a little airplay, the rock band from the country music capital wasn't working out.
Chad Warrix, who was acquainted with Tolliver from childhood, started writing songs and playing occasionally with Tolliver's country group. Eventually, the pair found a friend in country superstar Tim McGraw, whose company StyleSonic produced Halfway to Hazard's debut album in 2007. The pair opened for McGraw and wife Faith Hill's multiyear tour.
Country with a rock edge
Halfway to Hazard's sound is not precisely country. The rock edge left over from Warrix's Sodium days makes the band hard to define and not as radio-friendly, they acknowledge. But the lyrics — about lost love, family ties, pride of place — evoke the down-home values that certainly resonate with a country audience. They write most of their songs themselves, and their band name came from the first line of the first song they wrote together, Cold: "Halfway to Hazard, with the rain comin' down ... ."
Warrix and Tolliver care deeply for their families and home ties — they are each married with two kids. Last year, they started a charity event that mixes the music and hard-core mountain living they love: the Halfway to Hazard Charity Trail Ride and Concert.
Though it's held on a farm in tiny Crockettsville, a remote corner of Breathitt County, the $10 ticket price to see names like McGraw and Dierks Bentley helped the concert draw 25,000 people in August and raise $200,000 for Buckhorn Children's & Family Services in Perry County.
Fans from as far as Canada put the concert on their summer itinerary.
"That's one thing that strikes me about the Halfway to Hazard boys is that they're very proud of where they came from," McGraw told a Great American Country TV reporter backstage at the concert.
Strong advocates for coal
The band's identity this summer has become intertwined with pro-coal activism, as well. Perry County Clerk and Coal Mining Our Future director Haven King appeared at the band's charity concert in August. He called the band "the best true ambassadors we have," as he led chants and told the crowd that people from Lexington and Louisville are "going to take your coal." On Labor Day, the band appeared at a coal industry-sponsored Friends of America rally in Holden, W.Va.
"We totally support the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky," Warrix says. "We want to make sure coal gets a fair fight."
Warrix and Tolliver grew up riding their motorcycles and ATVs on trails that criss-crossed former mine sites, and they insist that outsiders need to understand the importance of coal to Eastern Kentucky's economy. They support coal because they love their home, they say.
'Seeing them live, you fall in love'
The band has a genuine, unpackaged stage presence and such a local reputation that Crockettsville concertgoers held on until after midnight to hear the band's set, long after McGraw had made his appearance and left. About 80,000 people saw them play in West Virginia. They played through the rain at Lexington's Fourth of July celebration this summer — "If you stay, we'll play," they told the audience.
"Seeing them live, you fall in love," said Sarah Woodford, a Wisconsin "Daisy" — a member of the unofficial fan club named for the band's hit single — as she waited to take pictures of ATV and motorcycle riders the morning after the concert in Crockettsville.
"The energy they gave off is just ... amazing," said her buddy, Sarah Goddard of Nebraska, who hopes to make the 14-hour trip again next year.
Proud to call Eastern Kentucky home
Warrix says he has quit worrying about which genre he is classified as. He loves saying something, sending a message with his music. "If it's good, it's good," he says.
He and Tolliver have finished recording their sophomore album and expect it to be released soon. They are still partnering with McGraw and StyleSonic, but this time with their own independent label, Picnic Hill. Tolliver says that puts a lot of the creative control, but also a lot of the work and challenge, back in their hands.
"There is no overnight success," Tolliver says. That's something he learned in those early years in Nashville, working at Applebee's and learning the ropes from other songwriters. "It takes hard work, dedication and talent."
Both said the Crockettsville concert, stunning in its size and the amount raised to help their hometown people, was a high point in their hardworking careers.
"Chad and I bleed blue," Tolliver says. "We will always be proud to tell people where we've come from."