And then it happened.
"I'm a huge fan," Dean Chance, the store manager, told him. "And I write songs. And I'd kick myself if I didn't take this opportunity to tell you I've got a song I'd really like you to hear. If you'll listen to it, I know you'll like it."
Mark Miller has been given a lot of CDs over the years. Unlike many brand names in Nashville, he doesn't just toss them out. "I moved here as a songwriter," he says, "so out of respect I listen to a verse and a chorus."
Dean Chance led the Millers out to his car. He pulled a CD out of the floorboard, presented it to Miller, and the Millers drove away.
"I have a Jeep, and the top was off, but I put the CD in," Miller recalls. "I can't hear all the words--I'm day dreaming--but I'm hearing enough. And I say to my wife, 'Is that as good as I think it is?' And I look over at her--and she was sobbing. I pulled into the Home Depot parking lot to hear it again. Now both of us are crying."
When the song ended, Lisa Miller said, "You've never been given a song this good. This is of God, you know that, don't you?"
Mark Miller did. There was only one problem: The CD was so weathered that the phone number on it was unclear. Miller didn't recall the name of the furniture store. And he was miles out of town at his farm. So he called a friend who worked at a Jeep dealership a few blocks from the store, and his friend went over and talked to the manager, and that is how, just a few hours after their first encounter, Mark Miller found himself talking to Dean Chance again.
Dean Chance was delighted--but not entirely surprised.
"When Mark walked out, I just knew," he told me. "I called my best friend and said, 'I think Sawyer Brown is going to record my song."
Why did you think that, I asked.
"Well, I had played it for Stella Parton--Dolly's sister--and she loved it. She called me up and prayed with me on the phone. And not long after that Mark came in..."
Dean Chance moved from Dunn, North Carolina to Nashville 25 years ago, because he thought he'd have a better shot at breaking into the music business. He took a job at Farrar Furniture; he's been there for all 25 years and is now the manager. In the past quarter century, he has written about 100 songs. He never sold one.
Dean and Teresa Chance have two children, a 28-year-old son and a daughter, Katie, now 7. When she was two, Katie was diagnosed with autism. "She looks normal, but her behavior makes going to new places difficult," Teresa says. "There have been a number of car trips when we'd drive for 20 hours, then have to come home. Or we'd take her to restaurants and have to leave. People give us looks, but I can't put a sign on my daughter: 'She's not badly behaved, she's autistic.'"
Eighteen months ago, those judgmental looks in restaurants inspired Dean to write the song he gave to Mark Miller, which he called "They Don't Understand." He changed his restaurant experience to a scene on a bus and he was off:
A mother riding on a city bus
kids are yelling kicking up a fuss
not knowing what she's going through
somebody said don't you even care
and do you let them do that everywhere
she slowly turned around, looked up and stared.
She said, "Please forgive them
they've been up all night
their father struggled
but he finally lost his fight
he went to heaven
in the middle of the night
so please forgive my children
they don't understand."
Everybody's busy with their own situation
everybody's lost in their own little world bottled up, hurried up, trying to make a dream come true
they don't understand
everybody's livin' like there ain't no tomorrow
maybe we should stop and take a little time
cause you never really know what your neighbor's going through
they don't understand.
A man driving on the interstate
slowing down traffic making everybody wait
everybody's staring not knowing what he's going through
somebody honked from the passing lane
yelling out the window "hey I ain't got all day"
the old man looked around and he caught his eye.
He said, "Please forgive me
you know it's been a long life
my wife has passed away
and my kids don't have the time
I've been left all alone
and it's getting hard to drive
so please forgive me, children
they don't understand."
A man hanging on a wooden cross
giving everything to save the lost
not knowing what he's going through
somebody said "you don't have a prayer
if you're the king come on down from there"
the man just turned his head
looked up and stared.
He said "please forgive them
for they have not seen the light
but they'll come to know me
when I come back to life
and go to heaven
to make everything all right
so please forgive your children
they don't understand.
A mother riding on a city bus
kids are yelling kickin' up a fuss
not knowing what she's going through.
When you started writing, I asked, did you know the song would get to Jesus?
"There was no way it could get to any other place," Dean said. "The people yelling at that lady's kids or old man--they're the same as people who were yelling at Jesus on the cross that he wasn't who he said he was. There was nothing he could say to change their minds. But once the woman on the bus tells you, you know. And once Jesus speaks directly to you--'I have come to save you'--you know that too."
"If we made a slick video, we'd miss the meaning of the song," Miller says, so the band hired Lark Watts, a first time director who had mostly shot in Super 8. And, once again, there was something....extra in the production. "When we get to Jesus, the idea was to film a baptism of all the people who had hassled others," Miller recalls. "And this was the coolest thing: The two guys getting baptized are really getting baptized. One was the director's brother. He said, 'I've been thinking about doing this for a while, why not do it here?' When those men came out of the water, their embrace with the minister was so real--you felt the power of the Holy Spirit."
Even when the band isn't touring, Sawyer Brown plays a few dates a month, just to keep everything fresh. That is an expression of the band's enduring identity as the bluest collar of blue collar Nashville bands. It certainly has a workingman's history: Mark Miller came out of Florida 25 years ago, forsaking a possible basketball career to form a band. He took the name from a street in Nashville: "We figured it was easier to get work if people thought we were a person," The band played every gig it could, hoping to get noticed, but it was turned down by all of Nashville's labels. The big break: an audition for "Star Search." Sawyer Brown didn't expect to win; the band just wanted a videotape to send around. Instead, Sawyer Brown won the competition, scored a recording contract, and began to release a stream of hits that have become country classics: "Some Girls Do," "Step That Step," "The Boys & Me," and "Leona." The formula has never changed--high-energy good time music, leavened with ballads. As Miller defines it, the band's appeal is that "We give America a license to let their hair down, scream a little, dance if they want to."
Miller has written more "serious" songs in the last few years, so it was not shocking, at a recent appearance in Biloxi, Mississippi, that the band unveiled "They Don't Understand." After the first two verses, Mark Miller looked out at the people in the first few rows and saw many of them crying. Then he started singing about Jesus: "Literally 20 or 30 people came out of their chairs with their fists in the air. I mean, there was a roar--and this was in a casino."
Sawyer Brown doesn't use a set list in concert; these musicians have been playing together for so long that Miller just feels the mood of an audience and calls out the next song. But in Biloxi, after "They Don't Understand," he was at a loss. "This was a full house standing ovation--I just stood there," he says. "I looked over at the band. They were shrugging their shoulders. We just had to wait." Miller knows better now. After the ovation subsides, he tells the story of the song, and then the band roars into "Mission Temple," one of their upbeat hits.
Back in Nashville, Dean Chance hasn't quit his day job. But his life has definitely changed. For one thing, there is a CD player in the store, and when customers reveal themselves to be friendly, he is likely to tell them what has happened to him. Then he plays the Sawyer Brown recording of his song. "And person after person hugs me, and they tell me a story about their lives," he says. "It just blows you away, how they pour out their hearts."
The other change, he says, in is his daughter, who is delighted by what she calls "the Katie song." "I think she is being healed," he says. "I believe her autism is going away." And if not? "If it doesn't do anything more for me, God has blessed me," he says. "Only good comes out of this song."
"They Don't Understand," written by Dean and Teresa Chance, Steve Miller and Jeff Woods, has just been released as a single by Sawyer Brown. It will be on the band's upcoming CD, "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," due in August.