Bear and Bo Rinheart’s lives could have gone a lot of different directions. Bear was a star football player at Furman University and could have pursued a career beyond his college days. Bo appeared in the film Radio and had a casting call for a recurring role in the television series “One Tree Hill.”
But having been raised on a church campground where their artistically gifted parents were the caretakers, it seemed only natural that their love of music would dictate the path they would collectively take.
Since those early days in South Carolina, NEEDTOBREATHE has released six critically acclaimed albums, has toured with Taylor Swift and appeared on major television programs including “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night with David Letterman,” and “The Conan O’Brien Show.” NEEDTOBREATHE has been equally embraced within the faith community where the band has won 10 Dove Awards and placed numerous singles on the Christian radio charts.
In this composite CSJ conversation, lead singer Bear Rinehart talks about his past life as an NCAA football player, changes the band has gone through over the years, why they have been embraced in multiple markets, and how a rift between him and his brother Bo nearly destroyed it all:
Chad Bonham: Tell me about growing up in Possum Kingdom, South Carolina.
Bear Rinehart: My mom and dad ran a Christian camp out in the boonies. It impacted who we were culturally. Even though we were in the South, kids came from all over to the camp, which was a really good influence. It was a very diverse group of kids. It definitely impacted how we saw the world and how we related that to music.
Bonham: What kind of music did you listen to back then?
Rinehart: We listened to everything from Christian music to rap to metal.
Bonham: Tell me more about the church camp environment.
Rinehart: It’s such a meaningful time for people. It’s almost like half the people you meet got saved at Christian camp. It was a powerful time to see people’s lives changed in a matter of a couple of days or a week. That was also a positive influence on me and my brother.
Bonham: How did your parents influence you and Bo musically?
Rinehart. My mom was a piano teacher. My dad traveled with a lot of country artists like Roy Clark, Glen Campbell and the Gaithers. He was performed on “Hee Haw” once. So music was very important. It wasn’t just something you did for entertainment. I think we really learned to appreciate music in that way. We also learned a lot from our dad when were working on getting our first record deal. He wanted us to get our degrees before traveling fulltime. He was scared to death for us all the time. Every time we cam home, he tried to fix the trailer lights because he’d been there before. He knew that we were driving all hours of the night—all day, every day
Bonham: Tell me about your experience playing football at Furman.
Rinehart: At school there was a big triangle between academics, football and music. Academics definitely took the back seat. I did finish school and everything was fine but we have lots of stories from college. Football had to be my number one priority because it was paying for school but I would leave games sometimes on Saturday and drive three hours to play a show that night. The guys at Furman allowed me some leeway. They were all understanding of the long hair and the way I dressed. I usually had football practice until about 7:30 at night and then I’d drive an hour back to Seneca to practice with the band until about 2 in the morning. After an hour drive back to school, I’d have to get up for workouts at 5:30 and then I’d crash for a few hours before going to class.
Bonham: Was the team successful?
Rinehart: We reached the D1-AA championship game one year. One of our biggest wins was against UNC.
Bonham: Bo had a pretty interesting journey himself.
Rinehart: Yeah, he went to Clemson for an architecture degree and dabbled in acting. He was an extra in the movie Radio and a double for one of the lead characters. He turned down an offer to tryout for a part on “One Tree Hill” because we were about to get our first record deal.
Bonham: Even though you grew up in a Christian home and grew up listening to Christian music, what led to the decision to sign a general market deal with Atlantic?
Rinehart: We grew up in the Christian market. We have nothing against it. We like it. If anything, I think it would have been a risk to go with the Christian market even though we had a secular deal. We’re just being who we are. We’re all Christian guys. Those kinds of things come across in the songs. Without us having an agenda, I think these songs naturally flow out of us. These are things we really believe. Hopefully those things do come across in our music. It doesn’t take very long for people to figure out that something’s different. Hopefully that will be the kind of testimony that this band has. I think that’s the only way to be relevant in the secular market today. A lot of people do want to believe in something but they can smell inconsistency a mile away. They totally see through that.
Bonham: What’s it like writing music with your brother?
Rinehart: It’s been a big benefit for us because we’re not soft on the songs. We went into our first record with 60 songs and we got it down to 11. It’s a knockdown drag out but usually that’s what separates the good songs from the not-so-great ones. I always tell the band, it’s easy to make a good song great. It’s impossible to make a bad song good. That process is made a lot easier for us because we’re so hard on the songs.
Bonham: What is your general philosophy on lyric writing?
Rinehart: We want to make optimistic records. It seems that so much rock music is angry about something. When you first start writing songs, you automatically start writing songs that are sad or angry. It’s pretty easy to do that. That’s our goal lyrically—to write things that are more positive.
Bonham: How do you hope that your lyrics encourage the listeners?
Rinehart: We always feel like one decision can change your life and you can make that decision at any time. It can happen this minute. Everybody makes decisions everyday that affect their life in a negative or positive way. Those decisions really do have big affects even if they feel like their small and now’s the time to make that decision.
Bonham: Critics and fans alike have generally given the band high marks for lyrical artistry. What do you think has factored into the positive reception?
Rinehart: There’s always a more artistic and a smarter version of you that you’re always worried about meeting. All of us are intelligent guys. We didn’t get into this by being idiots. We are cultured. It is a little different when people do get to know us. Hopefully they see that we have thought these things out. Hopefully we’re culturally relevant and we’re not just walking around oblivious to what’s going on in the world and using a bunch of Christian clichés.
Chad Bonham: How much have you guys changed from the earliest days of NEEDTOBREATHE and in what ways do you feel like you’re still the same?
Bear Rinehart: We’ve gone through some serious changes throughout our career for sure, but I think it’s all been a process of trying to get back to who we really are as people. The Outsiders was a record that was kind of a peek into who we are. I think Rivers In The Wasteland was one of the most vulnerable records for us. I don’t know why it’s been so hard for us to shed some of those layers, whether its production or things that are surrounding the band. But I really think that people are finally seeing what we’re all about and how we grew up and what it would be like if weren’t trying to make records and if we didn’t have the mics turned up.
Bonham: I’ve never seen anything like what’s happened with this band. Like no other artist, you guys were immediately embraced in both the general and Christian markets and you’ve been able to play music wherever you want to play without dealing with much criticism from either side. Have you ever been able to figure out how that happened?
Rinehart: We’ve been very fortunate in that way. There are a lot of bands that made that possible. Switchfoot was one of the bands that paved the way for that to happen. They fought some battles that we didn’t have to fight. We’re thankful for that for sure. It was really intentional, in terms of how we approached the early part of our career from a business standpoint. We got offered a lot of Christian contracts when we first came out and we turned those down because we wanted to make sure we set it up the right way and give ourselves a chance to be able to do everything we wanted to do. We made some mistakes along the way. I’d be lying if I said we did it all right. It hasn’t always gone according to plan, but at the same time, we’ve been really fortunate to do what we set out to do, which was make music for as many people as possible. We wanted kids who were like us to enjoy our music, but we also wanted their friends to like our music too. We wanted people that would never go to a Christian store or go to a church to listen to music to be able to get into our music. That’s what we set out to do. I think we’ve been able to keep that dream alive. God put that on our hearts and it’s been His plan, which has been amazing to be a part of.
Bonham: You’ve been pretty open recently about some struggles you and your brother Bo have gone through while working on music and touring together with the band.
Rinehart: It got pretty intense there for a while. We had talked ourselves into believing that it was actually good that we were fighting. It was competitive. We were writing songs. He would write a song and I would try to beat it with another song. It just got to be almost a joke. It was two leaders of a band that were trying to be right all the time. It was really childish when you look at it. In the thick of those things, because our priorities had gotten screwed up a little bit, it made sense to us somehow. The process for making this record was huge for us. We were able to take some time off and look back at the situation. It drove us back to a place where we were ready to quit. We were over it. If this was the way it was going to be, we weren’t enjoying it anymore. It was tearing up our family relationship. That’s not how we got into this. We got into this because we loved every second of it. We got into this because we love each other. This couldn’t be our identity. We do it because God gave us this gift, but it can’t be more important than anything else. So we started backing up from that and it’s changed everything about how we do things. Our relationship has never been better. Our song “Brother” has a line that says, “Let me be your shelter.” We just want to defend each other. We want to be there for each other.
Bonham: But it wasn’t like The Police back in the ‘80s when Sting and Stewart Copeland were getting into fistfights during TV interviews before they broke up.
Rinehart: No, it really was like that. It had gotten so bad. We got to the point where we were in different dressing rooms. And it’s just childish. I can say it in a laughing way now, but it really speaks to how dark of a place we were in. Just like the first track on our record says, we were in a wasteland. “I’m the first one in line to die when the cavalry comes.” That’s the way it felt at the time. We titled our album Rivers In The Wasteland because we felt like God put a river into our relationship and something had to be done and was done. It was something new and refreshing that God did. He revived us from a dying place. It was a miracle. It really was. It took us a year to make that record that should have taken us three weeks to make. We had all the songs written and next thing you know it’s a year later. It just showed what kind of place we were in when we started. It was a God thing. He broke through and changed everything.
Bonham: Anyone can be fulfilling their calling and walking out the path God laid out for them and still somehow wind up getting lost. Is that what happened to you guys?
Rinehart: Definitely. We felt like we had hit the bottom. We felt like we had really messed things up. What you’re saying is true. There were a lot of our friends and some other artists that saw us during that time and they would come to us and tell us how our music had impacted them. So God can use you regardless of what you’re doing. He can still work through you. That’s just a picture of God’s grace throughout this whole thing. Even in our darkest times, God was still ministering through what we were doing in an incredible way. He chose not to take this thing from us, which is absolutely unbelievable to me. This process has felt like an absolute gift. We feel incredibly blessed to do what we’re doing.
Keep up with the band’s latest by visiting the official website: www.needtobreathe.com
(Photos: Sarah Lloyd via https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0; Chad Bonham; Harry Snead IV)