Is there some magic formula to writing chart-topping classic hits? If so, the guys from Fastball are the first to admit they don’t know it.

“I don’t know why people like stuff. If I knew that and I wanted to capitalize on that, I’d probably be way more famous,” joked band member Tony Scalzo, speaking from Fastball’s hometown of Austin, Texas.

Scalzo, fellow singer/songwriter Miles Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield are set to bring their winning je ne sais quoi to Hutchinson as they headline the final day of the 2019 RiverSong Music Festival, Friday and Saturday, July 12-13.

But is it really just luck that the alt-rock trio’s songcraft garnered two Grammy Award nominations, two Top 40 hits, a Platinum-selling album, and a loyal fanbase?

As unlikely as that seems, Scalzo compared the band’s initial success to a random bolt from the blue. And witnessing hip hop star Machine Gun Kelly and pop sensation Camila Cabello borrow a Fastball melody to top the charts in 2016 with their single “Bad Things,” Scalzo simply said, “We got lucky that lightning struck twice.”

Maybe the band’s songs resonate with listeners because they pose deceptively simple questions through timelessly catchy melodies.

“Was I out of my head? Was I out of my mind?”

“Won’t you tell me, which way to the top?”

And if you were anywhere near a radio back in 1998, you probably joined the band in pondering, “Where were they going without ever knowing the way?”

‘The Way’ and beyond

“The Way” was the single and “All the Pain Money Can Buy” was the album that catapulted Fastball into the limelight more than 20 years ago. After the band’s first album — a 36-minute blast of pop punk entitled “Make Your Mama Proud” — made only a modest splash, the band scoured high and low for inspiration.

Scalzo found his inspiration in a newspaper account of a small-town married couple who had hopped in their car in search of a good time and seemingly vanished.

Lela and Raymond Howard, ages 83 and 88, respectively, left their Salado, Texas, home on June 29, 1997, bound for a festival in the town of Temple — usually a 15-minute drive at most. The Howards never made it to Temple and, as the days passed, their whereabouts remained a mystery.

“I just sort of ran with it from there,” Scalzo said. “I used my imagination. The song was already done when we found out things didn’t go so well.”

More than 400 miles from their intended destination, the Howards and their car were found at the bottom of a cliff near Hot Springs, Arkansas. Scalzo had already immortalized the couple in verse: “Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold. And it’s always summer, they’ll never get cold. They’ll never get hungry, they’ll never get old and gray.”

Upon recording the song, the band didn’t imagine it would be a chart-topper.

“That song kind of sat there,” Scalzo said, “Nobody had really paid that much attention to it on the record. We were going to release (Zuniga’s composition) ‘Sooner or Later’ as the lead single when our manager said, ‘What about that song ‘The Way?’ Why don’t you just go ahead and try that?’”

After initially finding traction in smaller radio markets such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Sacramento, California, the song was picked up by Los Angeles’ rock station KROQ.

“We were off to the races for three years after that,” Scalzo said.

In a self-deprecating manner, Scalzo partially credits the band’s meteoric rise to their label at the time, Disney-owned Hollywood Records, and its promotional muscle.

“We had a huge machine behind us,” he said, “and if you’ve got that and if you’ve got songs that are any good at all, you’re going to be successful.”

But the eve of a new millennium would see Fastball’s trajectory begin to dip. After selling more than 1 million copies of “All the Pain Money Can Buy,” the band’s 2000 follow-up album, “The Harsh Light of Day,” would sell less than 85,000 copies.

What happened?

“The machine had started to move on to other acts,” Scalzo said, as the early 2000s saw hip hop and R&B dominating the pop charts. But he credited other factors, too, adding, “Well, when you listen to the lyrics (on ‘The Harsh Light of Day’), it’s not exactly light, is it?”

Fastball’s songs on its third album were as catchy as ever, and the album featured contributions from rock legends such as the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ sideman/keyboardist Billy Preston, and Stray Cats’ frontman Brian Setzer.

The band also broadened its palette, complementing its trademark strong melodies with string arrangements and even mariachi horns. The result was a fascinating listen that harkened back to concept albums from The Beatles and Pink Floyd.

“We put a lot into that record.” Scalzo said. “Instead of songs, they’re almost more like different movements in a classical piece. … I love music that challenges the listener.”

Unfortunately for the band, Hollywood Records didn’t see things that way.

“They didn’t really feel like they had something to focus on,” Scalzo said. “There wasn’t one frontman. You had two alpha-male egomaniacs fighting. We were busy all the time playing shows. We spent a lot of time on tour buses and in airports. We were exhausted and overworked. … It literally drove a spike between me and Miles. But we managed to stay together.”

‘Success isn’t guaranteed’

Two decades and several underrated records later, the band continues to sing and play its collective heart out. They play summer festivals, state fairs and are making the rounds on the ’90s rock nostalgia circuit. They’ve recently toured with the likes of Sugar Ray, Smashmouth, Everclear and Vertical Horizon. RiverSong will mark their first U.S. show after an overseas USO tour with Lit.

“We’re going to be returning after two weeks in Europe,” Scalzo said. “We’re playing some Air Force bases in Germany, Bosnia and Turkey.”

Looking back on a roller coaster of a career, Scalzo has learned a great many lessons.

“Success isn’t guaranteed,” he said. “If I could, I’d go back and tell (the band) in 1999, ‘Let’s talk amongst ourselves and let’s focus or this thing is going to go off the rails.’”

Despite some regrets, Scalzo is grateful for what he has.

“I’m very happy today because I have a home and people I love, and a family, and I have a career where I can do whatever I want,” he said. “I’m 55 years old. I’m healthy and I have enough. I’m more in love with music than I’ve ever been.”

He and the band have achieved a manageable level of fame, but not to the point where they’re hounded by paparazzi on the streets.

“When somebody does recognize me,” he said, “it’s awesome. It’s special. You know, when you’re really famous, you don’t know who really likes you and who likes you for what they think you are.”

Speaking of the relationship between his bandmates, Scalzo quipped, “We’re older and we understand each other and we don’t treat each other like crap anymore.”

With a new album — “The Help Machine” — due for release in October, Fastball continues to grow as artists. The album promises to be an amalgam of their radio-friendly sound with an adventurous twist. Among other collaborators, the band worked with producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.

“He put us to work and we did things we never would’ve thought of,” Scalzo said.

Fastball plans to treat RiverSong festival goers to both their classic hits and a preview of the forthcoming record.

“Our goal,” Scalzo said, “is to please the crowd and to play some of our new songs, too.”

Jorge Sosa is a former Leader staff writer. He is a Fastball fan and volunteered for this assignment.

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