(Source: www.forbes.com)

Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

It’s a mid-July Friday afternoon on one of the hottest days of the year, and the opening day of the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky’s downtown Waterfront Park. A few thousand people are already gathered on the Great Lawn sweeping up from the Ohio River. Most are “self-shading” by holding their blankets over their heads. Over the last few years Forecastle has become one of the country’s most popular outdoor summer music festivals. By sunset more than 20,000 people a day will be crammed in here until Sunday, sweating.

Photo by Willie MacLean

On a tour bus a half-mile away, the four members of Needtobreathe—brothers Bear (lead vocals, guitar, piano) and Bo Rinehart (backing vocals, guitar), bassist Seth Bolt, and keyboardist Josh Lovelace—have just pulled into the artists’ parking lot from South Carolina. They’ve been on tour since May, playing almost every night. They’ll be in Birmingham, Alabama tomorrow.

Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

Depending on which side of the political aisle you’re on, Trump’s America and the “religious right” can get a bad wrap these days. If you suffer from the frequent label of being one of the country’s most popular “Christian rock” bands, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that the reputation could work against you.

For Charleston-based Needtobreathe nothing could be farther from the truth. Despite airplay resistance from mainstream radio for more than a decade, Needtobreathe has managed to top the Billboard charts with their last two album releases since 2014. Their most recent LP, Hard Love, whose Collectors Vinly Edition comes out today, has more than 80 million streams since it debuted in July at #2 on the Billboard 200 just behind Drake’s Views. Needtobreathe has also built a cult-like following live, logging tens of thousands of miles on tour every year and playing to sell-out crowds at iconic music venues like Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, San Francisco’s Fillmore, and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Courtesy of the Rinehart family

Courtesy of the Rinehart family

Bear and Bo Rinehart—the older and younger brothers, respectively, who anchor Needtobreathe—were raised in a missionary family in Possum Kingdom, South Carolina. If you ever had a hang up about being called a “redneck”, you can imagine what that must have sounded like when people asked, “So where are you from?”

Music and God for the Rinehart brothers were inseparable growing up. Their father, a pastor, was a regular on the country music variety show Hee Haw. They sang gospel in church, and played every instrument that they could get their fingers on, relentlessly trying to outdo each other the way brothers do.

Courtesy of the Rinehart family

“Music was around us constantly,” recalls Bear. “We were writing our own songs and music by 14-15. But we were only allowed to listen to Christian music. So Bo and I snuck around to friends’ houses trying to listen to everything else that we could.”

Bear and Bo eventually mastered the deception of taping Pearl Jam over their Christian music cassettes in case their parents did a sonic audit. Ultimately, music in rural South Carolina either got you into—or kept you out of—trouble, however. So when the Rinehart brothers graduated high school they decided to use their talents as their ticket out of Possum Kingdom.

Photo by Jensen Sutta

Photo by Jensen Sutta

Bear, now 36, and Bo, 35, started playing coffee houses and clubs in Greenville, South Carolina where Bear was playing freshman wide receiver at Furman University. In between broken ribs, Bear and Bo teamed up with Bolt and Lovelace and found their sound. They laid sod and worked odd jobs during the day and played every other night, touring and sleeping out of a conversion van. The band released its first independent album in 2001, recorded in Bolt’s newly-formed Plantation Studios. In 2004, they followed with two four-song EPs, one of which piqued the interest of Universal Music Group. The band signed with Atlantic Records the next year and started living 200+ days on the road, six guys to a hotel room, the last person out of the van sleeping on an air mattress under the bathroom sink.

Photo by Caroline Knight

PERSEVERE THROUGH ADVERSITY. COMPROMISE

A few minutes before 6:00 pm the mid-July sun hovers in the sky over the main Mast Stage at Waterfront Park like a heat lamp. The humidity index has barely budged. Thousands of people are still streaming into the Forecastle grounds.

Photo by Jensen Sutta

When Needtobreathe takes the stage, there’s a quiet roar. Bo’s wearing a white t-shirt, white jeans, and white sneakers taped with “Hard Love”. His blonde hair hasn’t changed since he was five. Bear’s in a blue jean jacket and shades. The long Southern rocker hair that he sported on their previous album Rivers In The Wasteland has been ditched in favor of a short crop and wide brimmed leather hat. The first chord of “Great Night” off of Hard Love explodes across the lawn, echoing back off of downtown Louisville. The roar grows louder.

Photo by Brian Hensley

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

When you see Bear and Bo perform together it’s obvious that they’re brothers. They have the same smile. The edges of their eyes curl in the same mischievous way. On stage they’ve mastered the art of communicating with each other non-verbally to work the crowd.

Bear and Bo have also brawled since they were old enough to throw a punch. They played the same instruments and sports growing up, and sought the spotlight in the same small town. Most brothers so close in age eventually gravitate down different paths “to keep themselves from killing each other.” Bear and Bo competed with each other in all aspects of life. The fraternal rivalry would ironically make them both better at everything.

Courtesy of the Rinehart family

Courtesy of the Rinehart family

“We grew up playing all of the same things and competing at everything,” recalls Bo. “Football, baseball, drums, guitar, singing, attention. It’s always been playing music that’s kept us together.

After Needtobreathe’s fifth album, Rivers In The Wasteland, debuted in 2014, however, Bear and Bo’s rivalry rearmed. A decade of touring and working together started taking its toll. They used separate dressing rooms before shows. There were fights over control and direction. Bassist Bolt and keyboardist Lovelace tried to mediate. One night it boiled over.

“One of us ended up going to the hospital,” Bear recalls, looking directly at his brother, neither admitting who. “After that we took six weeks off and didn’t talk to each other at all. We had to rethink everything that we were doing. In that time we both wrote these manifestos that to succeed and to do this we had to be brothers first. We have to empower the people around us not only to speak up when someone does something disrespectful but to be as creative as they can be. We were dragging everyone down and that had to change. So we came together and said that we have to end this once and for all.”

Courtesy of the Rinehart family

Needtobreathe’s new album Hard Love is, in part, a testament to that process as well as a reminder that perseverance often means rethinking how you do things and altering habits. While the album’s songs and lyrics outwardly lay bare the band’s recent struggles with titles like “Don’t Bring That Trouble,” “No Excuses,” and “Happiness,” it’s also a radical departure in style and sound from their previous five albums and proof that you often have to push new boundaries to get back to your foundations.

“Some of our fans might think that some of the synth-y things and programmed drum stuff (on Hard Love) is a pop thing,” Bear told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. “We saw it as this new frontier that we had never touched.”

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

ALWAYS REINVENT YOURSELF. DEFY THE STEREOTYPES

By the time Needtobreathe is half way into their fourth song—a gospel-funk symbiosis called “Money And Fame”—Bo has already sweated through his white t-shirt and jumped off stage once, romping through the photographer’s trench on his way to the crowd. Some fans have traveled more than a thousand miles to be here. Others are locals hearing Needtobreathe for the first time, wondering out loud why anyone would consider “Money And Fame” Christian rock.

When you ask the brothers Rinehart about the stigma of being called a “religious” band you’d expect them to cringe—especially at a Millennial music festival that features mostly a progressive, alt-pop line up. Yet they don’t run from the question. They both know that it’s been key to their success.

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

“It was never something that we asked for,” Bear tells me of their early airplay on Christian stations. “It’s where radio put us. But it’s also a part of who we are. We grew up with church music, and for millions of people gospel music is a lifeline. It makes them cry. It helps them survive. We got into music in the first place to inspire people. We don’t try to write more about God or less about God. The fans we found were simply the ones who were open to our story.”

Photo by Jensen Sutta

Needtobreathe’s defiance of mainstream music classification is exactly what their million+ social media fans love about them. Every LP is unique, a reflection of the band at a particular moment in time. Harmonically, even a single album can sound like an entire iPod collection on shuffle, stretching from gospel to folk to the kind of driving, sonic escalation that reminds you of a 1990s Dave Matthews concert.

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

“We’re always trying to push our sound barrier,” explains Bo. “Which for us means sticking to our guns. Our fans are on the same page with us—and some of them have seen us twenty or more times—because every album’s different. Every show’s different. We’ve seen bands have success with something they didn’t like doing. Or music they weren’t proud of. But you can’t always stick to what you’re comfortable with. We’re always observing, always taking notes. I end up hearing songs in my head. Then there’s this spark. It’s like planting a seed. We make music about our experiences and our experiences always change.”

Defy the stereotypes people attach to you, Bear adds. You can never control what people call you. What you can control is not letting the past define your future.

Photo by Willie MacLean

CONNECT WITH YOUR AUDIENCE

When the sun finally drops into the clouds over Waterfront Park, it splinters into silver shafts over Ohio. Needtobreathe’s second to last song is a slow, soulful rendition of Ben E. King’s 1961 classic “Stand By Me.” It carries up the Great Lawn, across River Road, and drowns out the Friday evening rush hour traffic on I-65. If it weren’t still 98 degrees, you could imagine everyone stuck in grid lock on the bridge rolling down their windows, listening to Bear, Bo, Seth, and Josh belting out the chorus across Louisville at the top of their lungs.

Photo by Michael Stewart

Needtobreathe has defied the standard music industry road to success. They’ve gotten where they are for the most part without anyone else’s help. They pound the pavement year after year. They sell their sound door to door, and have built a loyal, passionate ground game working 18 hour days while also being husbands and fathers. In places like Nashville, this dedication isn’t uncommon. It’s the band’s passion to do it their own way—and never wavering from that instinct—that’s rare.

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

Photo by Jensen Sutta

“We always wanted to make our living on the road like James Brown and Willie Nelson,” says Bear. “We’ve been out there touring relentlessly for 15 years and people are shelling out there money and time to see us. So we want our music to be like School Of Rock with Jack Black. We want to use the power of a live show to change people. We’ve always been totally focused on putting on shows that we’re proud of for our fans. Everything else that happens on the radio is just a bonus.”

Music at its core is like any other business. Fans are customers. Some musicians succeed like infomercials, relying on hits every few years. Needtobreathe’s success is a reminder for every aspiring musician and entrepreneur that no matter how virtual the world becomes you still always need to play to your crowd.

Photo by Jensen Sutta

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

WORK WITH MEANING AND PASSION

Needtobreathe’s closing song is The Outsiders, the title track from their third album released back in 2013. By this point, more than 10,000 are packed into the Forecastle grounds. Most of the people in the crowd aren’t here for Bear and Bo. They’ve just discovered them for the first time. And they don’t want it to end.

If Needtobreathe has mastered the art of anything after almost two decades of finding their sound, it’s delivering a passion through their music that leaves their fans feeling like they’ve just climbed down from a mountain. Call it Christian. Call it religious. Bear, Bo, Seth, and Josh are here because they want to be. They’re here because they know music can inspire people. They’re here because if one of their songs changes just one person in the audience it’s all been worth it.

Photo courtesy of Needtobreathe

Working with meaning and passion for Needtobreathe also extends to what the band does off stage. This past January, Bear, Bo, Seth, and Josh flew to Tola, Nicaragua where they officially opened the Needtobreathe OneWorld Health center which was funded 100% by Needtobreathe’s touring donations supported by ticket sales, their annual golf tournament and auction, and out of fans’ own pockets. Tola is a region of Nicaragua with over 40,000 people, more than 30 percent of whom live in extreme poverty and lack an accessible, affordable medical center that can address common and preventable diseases.

“We’re humbled by our fans and the way they’ve helped us to open the first medical center in Tola,” says Bear. “We love what we do and this healthcare center is a direct reflection of why we do what we do.”

The establishment of a well-equipped, low-cost primary care facility is a vital solution to the health care needs in the region, which the band plans on expanding into Africa next year. By investing directly in the region’s health, the project will also make a significant contribution to Tola’s long-term economic development.

Photo by Peter Lane Taylor

“Health is the basis of everything,” explains Bear, whose wife is a nurse practicioner. “You can’t do anything without being healthy, especially in places like Nicaragua where manual labor is the most important thing you often need to survive. Malaria, dysentery, these are problems that can be fixed. They have an answer. Our goal is to use music as a permanent platform for good, and what OneWorld Health is doing in Tola will allow these kids to live full lives.”

Hard love. Persevering. Surviving. Inspiring others. That is the essence of success.

Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

 

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More Info: www.forbes.com

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