NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NEEDTOBREATHE has a problem with preconceived notions.
The band is a brother act from the Carolinas known to favor the banjo, but they're not The Avett Brothers.
Bear and Bo Rinehart are the sons of a preacher who started playing music in church, but they're not The Kings of Leon.
And they won a Dove Award last year for their breakthrough album, but they're not a Christian band either.
The release of their fourth album, "The Reckoning," should clear things up. The album debuted at No. 6 on the all-genre Billboard 200 this week with 48,500 copies sold and is something of a mission statement for a group looking to make its mark on the wider consciousness.
They love Southern rock and want to be identified that way. And they want their music to be positive and uplifting, but they've been very conscious of putting their own stamp on their latest album, "The Reckoning," just so there's no confusion.
"We've always hated being pigeonholed in some way," older brother Bear said. "Mainly because we're worried about the future. We don't want to put a record out where people are expecting a certain thing, they get something else and they're not willing to go with us on the journey. That's the thing for us, trying to develop fans who believe in the band rather than the one song or the genre."
The comparisons weigh on the brothers and it was among the things foremost on their minds when they entered the studio. They spent five months laboring over their follow up to 2009's "The Outsiders," an album that reached No. 20 on the Billboard 200, No. 9 on the rock chart and No. 2 on the Christian chart. They considered every note, every instrument and every lyric as they crafted the 14 songs that make up "The Reckoning."
Did they want to include banjo this time? Did this snatch of song sound too much like someone else's music? Where did this phrase take the listener?
They put a great deal of pressure on themselves, hoping to make their own version of a classic album – something like "Damn the Torpedoes" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or "Rumours" by Fleetwood Mac. Those kind of expectations and second-guessing led to long hours in the studio and very familiar bickering.
"We still fight a tremendous amount, I would say," the 30-year-old Bear said.
"We were fighting just before we came in here," the 29-year-old Bo joked.
"You're working with family – especially with me and Bo writing the songs," Bear said. "So it's an artistic thing and I think you'd get into an argument with anybody. But then you bring in the whole background of the family thing and all this history."
That history starts in Possum Kingdom, S.C., where the boys were raised by a preacher father who used to play trumpet for guys like Roy Clark and Glen Campbell and a mother who taught piano. They had other interests, but remembered music being a part of their life early.
"We didn't escape childhood without us both having a drum set," Bo Rinehart said. "That was the beginning of our rock career – two drums and nothing else."
By the age of 12 they were playing rock `n' roll-style music in their father's Assembly of God church, where they got their education from other players who taught them about amps and effects pedals.
"And it was cool," Bo said. "I say this a lot: You see a lot of bands that grow up in church or their dad's a preacher. It's not like you can play in a club when you're 12. Where else can you play music?"
They quickly began writing their own songs, though the band was actually started by Bear and drummer Joe Stillwell, 31, when both were in college (bassist Seth Bolt rounds out the group).
The brothers decided early on that NEEDTOBREATHE was more like a family than a vehicle to something else.
"We weren't going to leave each other," Bear said. "We weren't going to look for a better drummer. The drummer had to get better. And I think we became competitive about it."
That drive to get better has them on the doorstep of bigger things. They're in the midst of a six-month tour opening for Taylor Swift, playing in front of thousands of fans. On a recent stopover in Nashville, the band took a crowd listlessly awaiting Swift and had several thousand cheering along by the time they were done.
Scenes like that drove NEEDTOBREATHE's first-week album sales and give label executives at Atlantic Records a window onto what they consider endless possibilities.
"We consider them an important band and a band that could be the voice of a generation perhaps," said Anthony Delia, Atlantic vice president of rock marketing and A&R. "It's interesting, because we're on this Taylor Swift tour, and a lot of kids come out and we're the first rock band they're ever going to see. The Taylor show is the first show they've been to. And I think the kids have a taste of something they didn't come out to see necessarily, but when they start getting into different kinds of music, who knows the kind of mark we could have on these kids? Everyone remembers their first band they ever saw."
The Rineharts hope by the time it's over they've added several thousand fans and taken the next step in their evolution. They don't mind if those fans are Swift fans or Christian music fans or fans of those other brothers.
"I think the age of being too cool for things is so incredibly over," Bear said. "If you're a real artist out there, you don't care who your fans are. If people connect with your music, what more could you ever want?"