At the end of the day, when Sean McCollough and his wife, Steph Gunnoe, gather around the dinner table with their daughter, Willa, the conversation inevitably takes a darker turn.
Gunnoe, who works in palliative care at a Knoxville hospital, sees it on a daily basis. They’re caring for elderly parents, one of whom — Gunnoe’s mother — has slowly slipped away as dementia has ravaged her mind. On their way to a gig with their band, The Lonetones, they survived a devastating car crash a few years back that left Gunnoe hospitalized for almost a week with broken ribs, a fractured sternum and a punctured liver and lung. They’re not as young as they were when they started this musical journey, and they’ve seen death claim close friends, including the late Phil Pollard, a musical force of nature in the Knoxville scene and a frequent collaborator with the couple.
It’s little wonder, then, that some of that darkness makes its way onto “Dumbing It All Down,” the new Lonetones record that the band will celebrate with a Saturday night release show at The Open Chord in West Knoxville.
“I do think there are songs that are a total reaction to the preciousness of life and the realization of death,” McCollough told The Daily Times this week. “Aging parents, aging ourselves, car wrecks ... those things give us a new perspective on life, and they played a part, for sure. It’s like the song ‘Sweet Sinners’ — that’s kind of about our dinner conversations. We’re all here, ultimately, for a short time. We’re all sweet, and we’re all sinners, and we’re all doing the best we can, and we haven’t figured it all out.”
Here’s the thing about “Dumbing It All Down,” though: It’s not a dark record. Yes, it touches on some metaphysical themes, but the intricate instrumentation, combined with McCollough’s soothing baritone and Gunnoe’s lilting alto, manage to package up melancholy and depression and turn them into a rumination on the yin and yang of life on Planet Earth. Yes, bad things happen; yes, there is pain. But misery is optional, and the sun will indeed rise every morning. A Lonetones record, in other words, sums up the bottom line: No matter what happens, it’s going to be OK, one way or another. Life may not work out to the expectations of those who experience it, but solace and comfort can be found when the shadows descend, if one knows where to look.
And music, they said, is as good of a place as any to start.
“It’s like, you show yourself, through your inner child, that the follow-through is really powerful,” Gunnoe told The Daily Times. “It sends a message to these really scared parts of yourself that it’s OK, that it’s worth it, that you’re worth it. Really, it helps you move on.”
“I think there’s a a value in writing a song or a poem or painting a painting just for yourself, and we both sometimes do that,” McCollough added. “But there is also value in putting it out into the world, and a vulnerability that comes with that, that’s powerful and healing.”
The Lonetones grew out of a chance encounter between Gunnoe and McCollough at Barley’s Knoxville in the 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 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, one that’s changed a number of times over the years, and released a handful of records: “Useful” in 2004, “Nature Hatin’ Blues” in 2006, “Canaries” in 2009 and “Modern Victims” in 2012. That record was released in late 2012, so while it hasn’t been quite five years since the last Lonetones album, both McCollough and Gunnoe acknowledge that the wait has been longer than expected.
“That car wreck happened right on the heels of us buying and renovating a new house, and part of that meant creating a new recording studio in the house,” McCollough said. “We were kind of ready to record an album when we did all of that, but it pushed it back by about a year and a half. But we ended up with a nice space in our house to record.”
At their former home, the studio was located in the basement, where a wood stove made winter recording sessions impossible because of the heat. In addition, the acoustics were often so difficult that McCollough spent more time cleaning up recordings on the computer than his bandmates did laying the recordings down.
“With ‘Dumbing It All Down,’ I didn’t have to sit there and work on them to make them sound nice,” he said. “The space has been a real added benefit.”
Another benefit — new players in the Lonetones lineup. Jamie Cook, formerly of the Black Lillies, is the band’s new drummer, and Vince Ilagan and Bryn Davies are splitting duties on bass. Cecilia Miller is the lone holdover from “Modern Victims”-era Lonetones, but her expanded role on the new album adds a sweeping sense of majesty to many of the songs. And when all of the members contribute to the arrangements of certain songs, the results are sublime. Local jazz man Will Boyd pitched in for the song “Of Course,” which Gunnoe initially brought to her husband as a song she was unsure belonged on the album.
“It was this sad song that was really super raw that I brought to Sean, and he’s like this benevolent, wonderful dad, and you know it’s not going to be too much for him,” Gunnoe said. “He said something like, ‘It’s going to be OK. We can work with this.’ And I said, ‘We can work with that? It feels so dark and heavy!’”
“It’s a heavy song, lyrically, and Steph was pretty set on the fact that this was maybe a song we couldn’t ever perform or do with the band,” McCollough added. “But the band came together and played around with it, and we put it to a sort of disco, roller-skating vibe, and it surprisingly came out sounding like it sounds. It was a community effort that turned it into what it is, and you come away from it feeling hopeful, even though the lyrics are heavy.”
And that cuts to the core of The Lonetones sound. Life happens, and it’s not always a pleasant experience. But with albums like “Dumbing It All Down” to get us through, we’re going to be OK.
“I’m pretty busy, and I’ve got a lot of nice parts to my life, and I don’t want to mess around with the art unless it’s going to serve a purpose,” Gunnoe said. “Sometimes, I kind of wish I didn’t have to do it. It’s a lot of work, it doesn’t pay any money, and it takes you away from other things. But there’s nothing else quite like it to serve its purpose, and because of that, we can’t not do it.”