A GENRE UNTO THEMSELVES: The Lonetones may struggle to label their sound, but not to make it beautiful
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
By Steve Wildsmith
A lot of existential questions can be answered over a plate of breakfast at Midland Restaurant in Alcoa, but one remains elusive for husband-and-wife team Sean McCollough and Steph Gunnoe:
How would they describe the music of their band, The Lonetones?
There’s no easy answer that fits the group, which celebrates the release of its new album, “Modern Victims,” on Saturday night in Knoxville. The album is a soupcon of traditional folk and contemporary rock with generous portions of Americana, psychedelia and stringband music thrown into the mix. It expands on what the band has done on three previous records with strings and horns.
And it doesn’t lend itself to a pat description, the two bandleaders acknowledge.
“We used to call it folk rock, and we’ve really toyed around with different terms, like ‘mountain pop,’” Gunnoe said.
“It’s really just song-based music,” McCollough added. “There are elements that lean toward rock and toward stringband music. I kind of feel like we straddle worlds. Because our sound has evolved so much, we have one foot in the folk world and another in the rock world. With the new songs, someone told us that we sound like we fit better at The Pilot Light (the indie rock club in Knoxville’s Old City) than at Barley’s — maybe because The Pilot Light is where bands play when they don’t sound like anything else.
“I know that we’re not straight Americana, and we’re not straightforward rock. I think the Americana world is open to a band like us, but I’m not comfortable with the generic Americana label, because I think Nashville has taken over some of that and turned it into the country music that’s on the radio these days. I don’t think we fit into that at all.”
But finding a niche has never been the goal of The Lonetones. Unlike some of their East Tennessee contemporaries, McCollough and Gunnoe aren’t making music for fame or wealth. (Although if the music they made were to bring those things to them, they wouldn’t pass such opportunities by, either.) They aren’t cutting records to press the flesh of concert promoters and get before big audiences as a Tennessee Theatre opening act, though a band like Wilco or The Jayhawks would be a perfect fit.
They don’t eschew material things, and while they don’t come out and preach the joys of musical creation as a balm for the soul, it’s obvious that they regard what they do with a certain degree of honor and reverence. They feel privileged that friends and fans want to hear their creations, and they’re humbled that something they’ve written and arranged might bring a sense of comfort to those individuals.
They may not be materially wealthy, but they’re affluent in other ways that make the accumulation of riches so much less important. They have their house and their kids and their community. They find fulfillment in their various music projects and civic causes — McCollough’s “Kidstuff” program on WDVX-FM, or their involvement over the years in the annual South Knoxville Vestival event. And they turn to music to assuage the darkness and pain that goes hand-in-hand from time to time with walking upright on Planet Earth.
“In many ways, the part that creates is a hurt part of yourself,” Gunnoe said. “I think it makes people like us do what they do. It’s a release. I can bring Sean the pain in the form of a song, and he doesn’t judge what I’ve written. He encourages me and tells me that it sounds good, or that I should say things like that.
“Really, that’s the whole driving force behind making music. There’s really no other reason to do it. We have day jobs and kids, so if you can’t feed that part of yourself, it’s not worth doing.”
The band emerged from a chance encounter between Gunnoe and McCollough at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville’s Old City in 2000; a West Virginia native, Gunnoe had recently moved to Knoxville for graduate school and quickly became a fan of the local roots music scene. McCollough was a part of that scene, having played in the band Evergreen Street with Geol Greenlee and the late Phil Pollard, and after connecting romantically and musically, they formed a duo. (Their first public gig was at a wedding at The Palace Theater in downtown Maryville.)
Over time, they filled out the lineup — Maria Williams on bass, Pollard at first and then Steve Corrigan (of Same As It Ever Was and King Super and the Excellents, among other bands) on drums and the newest member, Cecilia Blair Miller, on cello. The band released “Useful” in 2004, “Nature Hatin’ Blues” in 2006 and “Canaries” in 2009, and in building up to “Modern Victims,” McCollough said, the band wanted to take greater steps into the rock ‘n’ roll territory hinted at on the latter album.
“We used electric instead of acoustic guitars and electric instead of acoustic bass, and Steve used sticks more this time,” he said. “On ‘Canaries,’ we were beginning to hear that our songs were more rock and less folk and country, but we didn’t produce it that way or arrange the songs that way. On ‘Modern Victims,’ we evolved more into that direction. The actual material is not that different, and the song structures haven’t changed significantly. On CD, it isn’t a huge leap. But live, we may have lost some folks.”
The purists disappointed by the band’s plugged-in sound aside, the new material takes the core of the Lonetones sound and builds on it a complexity of sound and emotion that’s richer and more full than anything the band has done in the past. A Lonetones live show isn’t a jarring experience, by any means; the songs on the records simply have more vibrancy and energy to them. It’s as if whatever darkness the two discover in their wells of inspiration has been pushed back, and the live show becomes a celebration of its avoidance.
“One of the unique things about Steph is that she’s able to access these deep, dark places, but she’s a pretty positive, balanced, together person in her life,” McCollough said. “For me, I have an easy time writing a pop song. I could fit right in in Nashville, I think. I have a harder time digging deep and going to those darker places, and that’s how Steph encourages me.”
The subject matter may tilt toward darker things, but the music — especially on “Modern Victims” gives their words a buoyancy that’s a perfect counterbalance. It’s not hard to imagine McCollough and Gunnoe traveling down the darkened mine shaft of their hearts, the light of friends and fellow musicians — Kevin Abernathy on guitar, Black Atticus on the spoken word segue of the title track, Miller’s heartfelt string work, Kyle Campbell’s upbeat brass arrangements — combining with their own to push back whatever darkness threatens to creep close. The underlying hope that’s at the core of their music makes certain that whatever demons are summoned through the songwriting process will be vanquished, and that love will win out.
Maybe that’s what Pollard — to whom “Modern Victims” is dedicated — meant when he once described the band’s music as “music for lovers.”
“Going there alone, I think I would be scared,” Gunnoe said. “Our own demons are always the scariest, and I feel insecure about my singing and playing. I have a hard time writing songs, because I’m very judgmental of my singing and my voice. But Sean is just so unfazed. He’s so loving and gentle, and if it feels too dark and heavy, he’ll bring out an instrument and add something that’s lighter and more positive.”