When it comes to making music, it’s the song itself that provides the most essential connection with the listener. No matter how articulate or experienced the artist, the material is always of ultimate importance. It’s the foundation of any performance and the reason why the audience opts to lend attention.
Knoxville’s Lonetones are fully aware of that fact, which is why, after five albums over the span of the past 20 years, the group claims a catalog that’s as easily addicting as ear candy and gets under the skin even after an initial listen. It starts with the couple at the helm, Sean McCollough and Steph Gunnoe, the husband-and-wife musicians who write the majority of the material and share much of the instrumental output. A fixture in East Tennessee and its nearby environs, the band has embodied its role as a melodic folk/pop ensemble that’s attracted listeners of all ages who appreciate melody and ability.
It helps that for the past eight years, McCollough has developed a following of his own as host of WDVX-FM’s Saturday morning show called “Kidstuff,” a program devoted entirely to music made with children in mind. A full-time professor of musicology, Appalachian music, music appreciation and rock ’n’ roll history at University of Tennessee for the past 23 years, he possesses both the skill and the savvy to know what it takes to attract a loyal fan following.
“His rock history class is the most popular class in the entire university system,” Gunnoe said.
Gunnoe said her own skills came about naturally. While songwriting seems to be intuitive, she also was inspired by her parents.
“My mother was an opera singer and a piano player, so I grew up trying to sing along,” she said. “Of course, that was impossible, and I’d go through all kinds of gymnastics trying to keep up with my mom. I guess the fact that I was constantly hearing her sing in her operatic style and playing the piano really influenced me. My dad played bluegrass banjo, so we had a lot of different music playing around the house. I guess it had something to do with my ears that I found my way between all those sounds.”
She added that her own abilities developed over time.
“I only know a very few chords,” she said. “I don’t consider myself much of a musician at all but usually I have phrases I’m pretty set on and different tones, so it just becomes a matter of how things feel to say and sing. I get bored pretty easily if I’m not engaged by the melody. The melody has to be pretty compelling, and if I’m bored, I have to throw something else in there to finish the song.”
Consequently, Gunnoe credits McCollough for often helping her gather all the essential elements that are needed to complete the composition. He, on the other hand, credits her with some specific assets of her own.
“Stephanie is the more melodic one, so I hope that’s rubbed off on me as well,” he said.
Gunnoe and McCollough first met in 2000. Originally from Michigan, he had moved to Knoxville from Middle Tennessee to attend the University of Tennessee. Gunnoe grew up in West Virginia and relocated to Knoxville for graduate school in 1999. The two quickly discovered they had a shared love of traditional roots music, and eventually, that evolved into a decision to make some music together. Their first public performance was a mutual friend’s wedding at Maryville’s Palace Theater, which was then followed by an on-air appearance broadcast live on WDVX radio.
Over the years, their gigs became more frequent. They’ve played at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots festival, Knoxville’s Rhythm N’ Blooms festival, Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s and Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, while also finding themselves sharing stages with Sam Bush, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Amazing Rhythm Aces. (Their upcoming show at Maryville’s Vienna Coffee House will be an acoustic concert featuring Gunnoe and McCollough.)
As their careers progressed, various other players were added to the mix, and the group adopted the name The Lonetones to brand their collective efforts. The band’s first album, “Useful,” was released in 2003, followed by “Nature Hatin’ Blues” (2006), “Canaries” (2009), and “Modern Victims” (2012). At that point, the The Lonetones’ lineup coalesced into its present configuration, which features Gunnoe on vocals and guitar; McCollough on vocals, guitar, banjo, keyboards and mandolin; drummer Jamie Cook; and bassist Bryn Davies. Former full-time member Cecilia Wright Miller still occasionally sits in on cello.
“One of the major rules for musicians is that you never get in a band with a couple,” McCollough joked. “Fortunately though, we’ve been pretty drama free.”
It’s been nearly three years since the band’s last effort, 2017’s “Dumbing It All Down,” but McCollough said the group is currently in the process of recording a new record.
“We’re working on it,” McCollough said. “We have the rhythm tracks down for five songs. We kind of thought that the holidays would be a good time to work on it, but they were so busy they weren’t. The tentative release date is 2020.”
When it was noted that it had been nearly three years since the most recent offering, and five years since the one before that, McCollough acknowledged that their output had been slower than they hoped.
“I hope this one gets faster than the last one,” he said. “We set up a studio in our house, and so this will be the third record we recorded here. Hopefully we’ve got figured out so it can go faster as we go forward.”
Fortunately, McCollough has been anything but idle on his own. He has two albums he recorded prior to the Lonetones and three children’s albums to his credit as well, the latest of which, “Earworm,” was released last year.
“I guess I started playing music for kids when I had kids,” he said. “Since then it’s kind of turned into more and more. That led WDVX to approach me about doing the radio show, and I’ve been doing that for eight years, or something crazy like that.”
Gunnoe said she has also had some thoughts about taking a solo sojourn. “I have thought about that,” she said. “I have a fantasy about playing with all women and especially, singing with women. A heavy harmony situation would be pretty appealing someday.”