The Wright Brothers have survived stage coach disasters, buzzard’s luck and time itself to earn a place as some of the most famous musicians in the state.
By Karen Kennedy
There are some things that just stand the test of time.
Like a classic Volkswagen, a perfectly broken-in pair of sneakers or a hoodie that you’ve had since your college days, some things just feel like an old soul that’s always been there. Something you can grab and pick right back up where you left it without missing a beat.
The Wright Brothers Band is one of those things.
Tim Wright, 61, of Carmel, and Tom Wright, 65, of Fishers, have been singing together since they were kids. They grew up in French Lick, Ind., in a musical family and started out singing gospel in church. Carmel resident John McDowell, 65, the third “Wright,” joined the brothers in 1975. They were originally known as The Wright Brothers Overland Stage Company, but that name fell to the ravages of time.
Four decades later, they have covered thousands of miles, sung in hundreds of venues, met celebrities, loved and lost, and through it all, kept the music going.
Theirs is a story of amazing opportunities; some of them seized and some of them lost due to circumstances beyond their control.
Breaks came quickly for the band in the late 1970s, as they were playing college campuses and state fairs. The Wright Brothers Band landed on the same stage as Bob Hope at the grand opening of the Mississippi State University arena and opened for country queen Dolly Parton at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis.
In the early ’80s, they were signed by Warner Brothers and Parton invited them to tour with her. It seemed like all of their stars had aligned. But fate had other plans for the band.
Just as the tour was starting, Parton fell ill, and the tour was cancelled. So the band went back to touring on their own, building momentum and a fan base.
They landed in Nashville, Tenn., and opportunity knocked again, this time in the form of Barbara Mandrell, who invited them to tour with her. But just before that tour started, Mandrell was in a bad car accident, and that tour also was cancelled.
“Buzzard luck,” Tom, the sage spokesman of the group, said with a wry smile. “That’s what we call it.”
A taste of success
Not all of their luck was bad.
The Wright Brothers Band was chosen to create the soundtrack for the 1987 movie “Overboard” starring Goldie Hawn.
After the success of their album “Made in the USA,” they appeared on the Today Show.
They’ve sung on the Grand Ole Opry stage and performed with the Oak Ridge Boys, Rascal Flats, Cheap Trick, Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, The Judds, Rush and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
The rapport between the three performers is obvious. Tom is the most serious of the three, a strong counterpoint to the patter between Tim and John. And their stories all involve being on the road.
“There was a time when I was driving, and I decided to stop and get some chicken,” said Tim. “I pulled into the place and yelled to the guys, who were sleeping in the back, that I was going in to get something to eat. What I didn’t know was that they decided that sounded like a good plan and had followed me in.”
“I got my chicken, got back in the truck and started driving,” Tim said. “About 150 miles later, the state police pulled me over and suggested I turn around and go back and get the other two-thirds of my band.”
“And once, in South Dakota, we knew John had a date – he was the only one who was single,” Tom laughed. “So Tim and I took all the pillows we could find in the hotel and stuffed them in his room, all the way up to the ceiling.”
“I got through,” John said with a smirk.
A family affair
Although they started out as a country band, today their genre is harder to classify. Their song list ranges from ’40s standards to classic rock, from The Beatles to Jimmy Buffett.
But regardless of the song they’re singing, their velvety harmonies are unmistakable. They have a sound all their own.
The band is rounded out by Bryan Chrisman of Carmel on percussion and Keith Claghorn of Illinois on keyboards. In 2001, Tim’s daughters Emily and Lauren joined the group, making it even more of a family affair.
Tim has written a book about their long history in show business called, “Not the Destination; a Spiritual, Musical Journey in the Wright Brothers Band.”
Their newest CD, “Live from French Lick” is the result of a live radio show they created in the vein of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” It is called the “Hoosier Jubilee Radio Show,” which they performed in their home town.
For the next three months, an exhibit of the history of the Wright Brothers Band is on display at the French Lick-West Baden Museum.
A trip down memory lane for these three is bittersweet. They can’t help but recall how close they came to really making it in the big time. But now they belong to Indiana; they are “Indiana’s band.” They sold out every seat in a 2010 concert at the Palladium, they’ve rallied the crowd with the national anthem at Pacers games, and most of all, they’ve spent their lives doing what they love for a living.
“If I had it to do over again, I’d do it all the same,” Tim said.
Origins of the name
As the Wright Brothers Overland Stage Company began their careers, they thought it would be a great promotional idea to have their first photo shoot on a stagecoach. They found an authentic coach whose owners were willing to let them borrow it. Unfortunately, despite their very authentic outfits, the Wright Brothers were not experienced stage coach drivers. The horses took off with them, mid-shoot, nearly trampling the photographer. Bones were broken, the stagecoach demolished, egos were bruised and a legend was born.
The Wright Brothers Band ● 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Dec. 31 ● Three Ds’ Pub & Café ● 13644 N. Meridian St. in Carmel ● Tickets are $50. ● For more information, call 573-9746.