Country-rock duo Corbin/Hanner ending performance career
Dave Hanner says he and Bob Corbin, his musical partner and friend since seventh grade, thought they were “going to sneak out quietly” when their “Last Concert Ever” was announced for Aug. 29.
“We're actually grateful our fans aren't going to let us get away with that,” Hanner says. A second show at Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Warrendale had to be added for Aug. 31 before the singer-songwriters officially bring their performance career to a conclusion. Besides performing in the Corbin/Hanner Band, the two have written hit songs for several major country artists, selling a combined 20 million-plus copies.
“We never dreamed we would sell out two shows. That blew us away,” Corbin says.
It shouldn't have, given that the Ford City-area natives and North Hills residents, both 65, have built an intensely loyal following since starting their careers as Gravel in January 1970 at the Fox Cafe in Shadyside.
“It was one of our first shows in Pittsburgh, and we didn't even realize it was considered one of the hip places in town,” Hanner says. “All of a sudden, everybody loved us. We couldn't believe it.”
Their sound — rock tinged in the tradition of Creedence Clearwater Revival — struck a decided chord, eventually earning a deal with CBS Records.
“The Fox Cafe booked us six nights a week, eight hours on Saturdays. One Saturday, we played ‘Down by the River' four times. The place was so packed Wednesday, Friday and Saturday that we didn't bother to try to make it to the front door on break,” Hanner recalls.
“At one time, they were the best rock 'n' roll band in the Pittsburgh area,” says Sam Kanish of East Franklin, Armstrong County, who has been following Corbin and Hanner since their first paying gig in the mid-1960s at a Kittanning YMCA dance when they were in junior high.
“Then they headed to Nashville where they opened doors for other singer-songwriters from up here,” he says.
Their name changed from Gravel to the Corbin/Hanner Band in 1977.
En route to gold and platinum awards, eight of their songs became Top 5 singles on the country charts, with the majority going to No. 1. Alabama took “Can't Keep a Good Man Down” and “Fire in the Night” to the winners circle; the Oak Ridge Boys did the same with “American Family,” also making it the title track of an album. Kenny Rogers recorded “She Rides Wild Horses” and named his album after it. Don Williams, Anne Murray and Lee Ann Womack recorded “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” and Williams also had a Top 5 with “Never Be in Love Again.”
Country Music Hall-of-Famer Mel Tillis gave the artists their first major break, recording about a dozen of their songs, including “In the Middle of the Night,” on which Corbin and Hanner sang background, “Time Has Treated You Well” and the Top 10 “Blind in Love.”
Hank Williams Jr.'s version of “Dinosaur” brought an early gold record. “Fire in the Night” is performed by Alabama in Patrick Swayze's “Road House” movie.
The Marshall Tucker Band, Glen Campbell, Burl Ives, Michael Martin Murphy and Bill Miller were among other artists recording the material of Corbin and Hanner, who also toured with the Oaks, Tillis and Don Williams.
Corbin and Hanner's own nine albums include releases on Mercury/Polygram (“Black and White Photograph” and “Just Another Hill”) and other national labels. Three of their own singles reached the Top 30 on the national country charts, and “Work Song,” a nod to the blue-collar small town ethic of Ford City, became a much requested Monday-morning staple on stations across the country.
Stars never aligned
“I have worked with a lot of artists over the years, and these guys are the real deal,” says former Pittsburgh resident Kip Paxton, who played bass guitar and sang behind Corbin and Hanner for many years and is returning from his Nashville home to play the Jergel's shows. “They should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
“No doubt about it that Bob and Dave could have performed their own material as artists in their own right (nationally) and been very successful,” Paxton says. “There were many inside the music industry that respected and knew them very well.”
The stars just never aligned properly, says their former manager Bob Burwell, who works for Vector Management, one of the largest firms in Nashville.
“They should have been big stars on their own. They both are fantastic songwriters with world-class songs, good singers with their own style and good guys that people like to hang out with,” he says. “Some of their songs that weren't hits were even better songs.”
“Scooter, Michael, Danny and Me,” about growing up in Ford City, is a “killer song” Burwell says. “You can almost picture being in Ford City or any other little town. That's what I thought country music wants to be about, and that was what that song was for me.”
They were able to tell stories with their music, which is why their songs lend themselves to the country genre so well, says DJ Jeremy Mulder, host of the “Danger Show” afternoons on Pittsburgh country station Froggy.
“The music business is tough, but they had talents that couldn't be denied. They have an incredible body of work,” he says. “To me, their music is a mix of rock, blues, country and gospel.”
Whenever they would perform on air in the Froggy studio, Mulder says he always knew he was witnessing something special. “They are special people that Pittsburgh was lucky to have around. Their music will live on long past their retirement,” he says.
Corbin and Hanner are philosophical about how their career has gone.
“You can always wish you were more successful, or that we had gotten big, but, in the end, everything worked out OK,” Corbin says. “We've been fortunate to have always been able to write songs and sing them and have people respond, for the most part, favorably. You can't ask for more than that. We told people's stories in our songs.”
Hanner tips his hat to those who do make it to the top in music.
“It is hard, like running for office. You have to wake up daily thinking about how to further your career,” he says. “Bob and I were happy to write songs and go sing them. When it came to self-promotion, we sort of hoped the phone wouldn't ring. Pretty early on, we realized it was mainly about the music and the songs. So, we just did our best and kept our fingers crossed, and if anything else good happened, it was a bonus.”
Pittsburgh's Joe Grushecky says Corbin and Hanner were the guys to whom he always looked up.
“Gravel was the Pittsburgh club band back in the day. They played original music when it was totally unacceptable to do so and made records when that was an almost impossible dream here in this town,” he says. “They showed me what could be done with determination and talent.”
Grushecky worked and wrote with Corbin on Grushecky's 1990 “Swimming With the Sharks” album for Rounder Records, which Corbin produced and which was nominated for album of the year in the National Association of Independent Record Distributors honors.
Time is right
Corbin and Hanner say the time is right to pursue other paths.
Corbin and his wife, Edana, fell in love with the laidback lifestyle in South America and hope to move there for at least a while.
“I might try writing fiction or get into something completely different. We will see where the journey takes me,” Corbin says. “I don't think I will stop writing songs. Beyond that, who knows?”
Hanner is happy for his friend of almost 50 years.
“I have great pleasure thinking of Bob down in South America, ‘having his coffee by the sea' (as Corbin wrote in his early song, ‘Rio De Janeiro'),” Hanner says. “I half expect him to get all fired up about some Spanish songs he runs across and come back here and force me to learn enough Spanish to sing harmony on the choruses.”
Hanner already has begun his new adventures, traveling, skiing and finally allowing himself enough time to concentrate on songwriting without being sidetracked by other projects, such as the tunes he penned for commercials and various work-for-hire efforts in his home studio.
Closing the chapter on the Corbin/Hanner Band is “really not that bitter,” he says, “just sweet.”
“It's hard to put into words how grateful we feel for the support we've gotten in Pittsburgh practically every day since 1970. It's just amazing,” Hanner says.
“In the end, all we have is memories,” Corbin says, “and I will always have wonderful ones.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.