The Lonetones

Knoxville News Sentinel


Anyone who's witnessed the maturing of the Lonetones over the past several years knows it's a group that isn't hemmed in by any boundaries.

The group may have begun sounding like a sweet little folk outfit, but over the course of four albums (including the brand new "Modern Victims"), the Lonetones have developed into a genre-bending group that doesn't quite fit into any niche and instead feels right almost everywhere. If the band has a spiritual equivalent in a better-known act, it would have to be Wilco.

"It's nice to have a band that's up for wherever it goes," says co-lead singer-songwriter Steph Gunnoe, sitting at her dinner table with husband and co-lead singer-songwriter husband, Sean McCollough, at the couple's South Knoxville home.

The rest of the members also added to the changes with Maria Williams playing electric bass rather than just acoustic, Steve Corrigan coming up with new things on drums and new member Cecilia Miller adding cello parts.

"The songs have definitely evolved," says McCollough. "For us, it feels a lot different than the last one. We were hearing things in our heads that we hadn't done before and we had to figure out how to make them happen."

"I'd just started playing electric guitar and different things come out of you — even different emotions that you wouldn't write about if you were writing on an acoustic guitar," says Gunnoe. "It's nice to just be able to follow the song."

"Growing up in West Virginia, my dad played the banjo and I was comfortable with rural forms of music, and that's probably where I sing best, in a way, but I felt a little mismatched," says Gunnoe.

There was a definitely an indie rock phase in Gunnoe's past, despite being into the folk scene when she and longtime singer-songwriter/children's artist McCollough met in Knoxville. These days, Gunnoe and McCollough let all their influences shine. They've also opened up with how they create songs.

The two don't typically co-write (the couple's first true co-write is the new song "Alone"), but they do share their songs and accept suggestions.

"Our brains work very differently," says McCollough.

"I'm really interested in the scary part of songwriting," says Gunnoe. "I'll go into the darkness and then show it to Sean and he'll say 'cool' and then do something great with it. He's got bigger ears than me in some ways."

"She goes deep and I go wide," says McCollough with a chuckle.

The "Modern Victims" title cut is the first time in which the writer of the song didn't perform the vocals on the number. Gunnoe wrote it, but McCollough sings it.

"I just never felt like I could pull the song off," says Gunnoe. "I wrote this song and I liked it, but it doesn't sound like me. I wrote it and pitched it as a rap song ..."

"And then I turned it into a power ballad and put the rap in the middle," says McCollough. "It sort of feels like MY song now."

Local rap great Black Atticus free-styles near the end of the track.

"We just gave him a blank spot," says Gunnoe.

The album is dedicated to friend and former Lonetones member Phil Pollard, who died in October of 2011. McCollough also added bits of Pollard's music in parts of the new album.

"The song 'Top Hat' is something I wrote a couple of weeks after he died," says McCollough. "It's about how his death brought so many people together. He was the kind of a guy who would just send you a text that said 'I love you.' Afterwards, people acted a little more like Phil had."

Although the group has done some out-of-town touring, the membership's full-time day job status keeps them close to home, but word on the band seems to be getting out.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it would be cool to have some windfall success," says Gunnoe. "Some part of me would like that. But in some ways it's almost like it's Sean's and my relationship. It's a weird machine that works for us. It's a whole other plane that we meet on."

The Daily Times


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.”

Knoxville News Sentinel

Knoxville's Lonetones are deeply rooted to East Tennessee. With jobs and families cementing the band to mostly local outings, the group seems to embrace home, performing music that is Appalachian at its core.

The inherently traditional aura of its sound, however, in no way limits its massive absorption of influences from around the world, drawing comparisons to bands of other genres in other hemispheres. Tonight the socially conscious act will perform for a global cause, benefitting the children of Haiti.

There is no denying the folk base of The Lonetone's sound, with musical renaissance man Sean McCollough employing an arsenal of traditional instruments and the band's front porch-vocal harmonies. Despite its mountain-folk heritage, the group has been likened to a number of indie-rock outfits, the most abstract of which being the key-heavy Scottish act Belle and Sebastian. Perhaps more noticeably, the Lonetones are reminiscent of Swedish indie-poppers Acid House Kings had they been reared in Melungeon territory.

Ever open to listener interpretation, the group is accessible to a wide array of fans and comfortably fits nearly any venue Knoxville can offer.

"I love to drone," McCollough points out. "I drone on the banjo, the mandolin, the guitar and keyboards. I love finding one or two notes that I can play through an entire song and then build layers on top of that. One band I associate with this idea is The Velvet Underground. Their music has heavily influenced what we think of as indie-rock. So perhaps this is related to where the term indie-folk has come from.

"Of course, the demographic draw at different venues is a reality - younger folks come to an 11 o'clock show at the (Preservation) Pub; older folks come to an 8 o'clock show at Barley's. But, as musical styles continue to mix and create this wonderful mish-mash that we call American music, I really think that the distance between what can happen at the WDVX Blue Plate Special at noon and what goes on at the Pilot Light at midnight is really not as far as some people might think."

"I marvel at the diverse fan base The Lonetones gather," adds vocalist/guitarist Steph Gunnoe. "All ages, all persuasions - festivals are usually a good fit for us for this reason. We have played at the Pilot Light only once before, and I would rate it highly as a stage to be free on. We have probably played the most shows on WDVX and have a real home there, a welcoming audience that permits our experimentation. We kind of tailor our sound to the venue - clean it or dirty it up musically."

With two albums to their credit since 2003, The Lonetones are gradually accumulating tracks for a third they hope to release later this year. Due to the band's low-pressure, DIY approach to recording, albums tend to sprawl a lengthy period of time, which may account for the discernible evolution between and within each record.

"We're slowly beginning to record our next album," McCollough notes. "We have recorded our last two at home and will do so again. It gives us the luxury of taking our time and experimenting."

For tonight's gig, The Lonetones will be joined by Kevin Abernathy, a familiar face bringing an unfamiliar aspect to the group's dynamic, adding his electric guitar to the band's earthy sound.

The Lonetones will perform at Pilot Light in a benefit for the Haitian Pedagogy Institute. Co-founders Sara Elizabeth Malley and Kymberle Kaser put HPI together with the mission of funding and establishing self-sustaining schools and free secondary education for the children of Haiti.

Metro Pulse

The story of the LoneTones is a love story with three main characters: Steph Gunnoe, Sean McCollough, and the music that brought them together.

As adorable as any movie meet-cute, their first encounter took place at Barley’s Taproom in the Old City in 2000. Gunnoe was still new in town—fresh from her native West Virginia after spending 10 years in the Pacific Northwest—and had read about McCollough in this newspaper, so her impression was positive before her housemate, another musician, introduced them one night over a game of darts.

“We went back to Meg’s and my house and played music,” Gunnoe says, looking across the kitchen table at McCollough, who is now her husband. “We played music that first night, right?”

McCollough nods. “Then we just kept playing music, I guess,” he says. “Is that what happened?”

Playing music soon turned into dating, then one thing led to another, and they had their first gig.

The duo played the regular WDVX Local Licks at 6 in-studio performance series. Back then, the studio was a small camper parked in the Fox Campground off the Norris interstate exit, and station manager Tony Lawson had tuned in for their radio debut.

“Tony called me that night and invited us to come play at Camperfest, like, that weekend,” says McCollough. Enter gig number two: performing during the Sunday morning gospel-music part of the festival. The timing caused them to re-evaluate their set list for any uncouth content and be hyper-aware of the audience. Gunnoe says that when she started to sing, the men glazed over. “They wondered how this fit into the bluegrass festival,” McCollough says. He jokes that women, however, perked up to hear the first female voice of the weekend—and a band not playing at breakneck speed. “At least we knew that the WDVX women in the campers making potato salad liked us,” Gunnoe says.

Their early sets featured Steph’s songs and a healthy serving of covers, in which the duo explored their common musical ground. Non-musicians flirt via mixtapes; musicians do it with covers.

“The instant she played a Carter Family song and I chipped in, it was like, ‘This works,’” McCollough says.

They grew as a band, adding percussionist Steve Corrigan and bass player Maria Williams, whom McCollough and Gunnoe give credit for helping develop their sound from straight-up folk to something extra.

“Maria is really eclectic in her taste in music,” he says. “So as we’ve wanted to change, she’s really been right there with us. She’s been very willing to go from more of the country style to adding more pop and rock elements.”

Their first album, 2004’s Useful, is folky sweet, infused with Gunnoe’s honeysuckle voice paired with McCollough and Williams’ warm and lilting harmonies, atop “Wildwood Flower”-style strumming. Her early songs paved a thematic path for the sound Gunnoe describes as “a weird tension” between “loving where you’re from and kind of hating it, too.”

By the time of their second album, Nature Hatin’ Blues (2006), the LoneTones had evolved to incorporate more sonic layers and unique instrumentation—a preview of things to come on 2009’s Canaries, which approaches acoustic folk with touches of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Fuzzy radio static launches the title track, which then slips to an acoustic guitar, a drum beat, and then Gunnoe’s honeyed voice. McCollough’s fingerpicking solo sounds like flamenco. Other effects on the album—birdsong, rain, crickets—evoke a haunted forest.

Band names rarely hold up to much scrutiny, but in the LoneTones’ case, the compound moniker suits the way McCollough and Gunnoe approach writing.

“I have a more fragile ego,” McCollough says. “So I totally write alone and bring [songs] finished to the table. She tends to bring them a little earlier.”

“You have more to offer an unformed song,” Gunnoe replies, saying later that she frequently asks him to help “dirty the sound up in some way.”

Husband-and-wife musical collaboration sounds decidedly non-dramatic as described by these two, who have a daughter and maintain two careers. Gunnoe is a nurse practitioner, and McCollough teaches musicology at the University of Tennessee (hundreds of students per year have had him for the history of rock). He’s also a member of the John Myers Band and recently released This Is Our House, an album of family music. McCollough says playing and recording in his home studio so frequently over the past few years has made him more comfortable with the process and means they’ll probably start making a new LoneTones disc soon. It will most certainly sound like the sum of their influences and inspirations—folk and the rest of it.

“One of the best compliments we get is when people tell us we don’t sound like anything else they’ve ever heard before,” McCollough says. “I always love that. We’re just trying to be true to who we are and it comes out sounding like we sound, instead of bluegrass or other styles of folk. It’s just whatever it is. Whatever we are.”

Knoxville Voice

The relationship between place and music is profound and complicated. Musicians often find a voice that expresses the aspirations, anxieties, and ambiguities of their region and their people. The members of the LoneTones certainly do. Their music rings from the mountains of Appalachia with a reverent, enduring and, at times, conflicted spirit. The band mates shoulder their geography with craft and care. They’re comfortable describing their songs as “fragile little things…kind of like souls” – songs sometimes possessing a quality of “healing.” Their music evokes place, but the LoneTones are anything but complacent. They create light-hearted music for the heavy-hearted, charming music for those charged to act.

Knoxville News Sentinel


The Lonetones are anything but lonely.

The folk music quartet is flush with friends and loaded with family. The band's sophomore CD, "Nature Hatin' Blues," is ready for release, and the band members know that, in Knoxville, they'll have local radio support and a waiting audience....

Metro Pulse

The LoneTones use a xylophone, and that’s pretty neat. But that’s not the only reason they’re cool. It could also have something to do with the sweet harmonies, and eco-friendly lyrics such as, They say they’ll protect us with technology’s grace/
But these mountains are state of the art. The Tones used to describe their sound as “timeless mountain pop,” but we think they’re better than that. Timeless mountain music is much more descriptive, because there isn’t anything pop-y about this group. 

Maryville Daily Times


....It's more than just a statement about Mother Nature; it's a treatise on human nature as well: "I've got the nature hatin' blues / each time we win we surely lose / the signs and symptoms can be found / disharmony bringing us down / I wanna bring it back, I wanna fit back in / I wanna be a part of nature again ..."

"We spent a lot of time thinking about what we do to the environment and ourselves," Gunnoe told The Daily Times this week. "I just think we kind of hate our own nature, and when we sort of deny ourselves, we deny nature at the same time. It's meant to look at both, because it's hard to separate them."

Maryville Daily Times


But for a few fateful turn of events, Stephanie Gunnoe might be playing electric guitar and screaming into a microphone as part of a riot-grrl group out of the Northwest.

Instead, Gunnoe picks sweet acoustic guitar and sings gently as part of The LoneTones, the band she fronts with her husband, singer-songwriter Sean McCollough (who also fronts the local band Evergreen Street). The band plays gentle acoustic music rooted in Gunnoe's Appalachian heritage ... but hearing her story, it's not a stretch to see how she might have ended up signed to Kill Rock Stars along with the label's star band, Sleater-Kinney.

``I was so happy to discover the riot-grrl scene, and it really, really inspired me,'' Gunnoe said recently of the time she spent in Portland, Ore., Sleater-Kinney's hometown. ``I might very well have ended up in one of those types of bands, but I didn't have the riot-grrl kind of voice and the aggression. I just don't have it, but the whole do-it-yourself attitude inspired me.''

Gunnoe's roundabout path to East Tennessee began in West Virginia, where, growing up, she was immersed in music. Her mother sang opera, and her father played the banjo. At the time, she disliked both styles of music, and when she left for college, she chose a place about as far from the West Virginia mountains as she could get -- Washington State.

``I hated bluegrass music, and opera for that matter, until I went to college out there,'' she said. ``I guess seeing all these young people enjoy it made me realize how much I loved it.''

Eventually, she followed a boyfriend and a best friend to Portland, where she began performing with a fellow singer-songwriter named Little Sue.

``We played just kind of raw harmonies, a Hazel-and-Alice type of music,'' she said.

At the time, the grunge movement had just exploded out of Seattle, and the riot-grrl movement arose from that scene. But Gunnoe drifted toward the emerging Eastside Sound, an acoustic revival led by former members of the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs.

``It was sort of an acoustic revival, and those guys sort of grandfathered a whole scene,'' Gunnoe said.

Shortly thereafter, homesickness led her back east -- but she wasn't so overcome with it that she wanted to settle back in West Virginia. She settled on graduate school in Knoxville, based in part on its proximity to the mountains that she loved.

``I heard WDVX when I was coming down here to visit the college, and just driving through the mountains, listening to some of the songs, was powerful,'' she said.

Realizing she'd found a spiritual as well as a geographical connection to her childhood, Gunnoe threw herself into studies at the University of Tennessee and the local roots music scene. Her high, melodic voice seems cut from rough mountain fabric, a thick flannel worn to sweet softness that's warm and comforting at the same time.

A chance encounter at Barley's Taproom altered her life when she was introduced to McCollough.

``We came back to our house -- my roommate was his friend, so we came home and played some music that night, and we've been playing ever since,'' she said.

That was back in 2000, and the two were soon known as Steph Gunnoe and Sean McCollough. Their first public gig was a wedding at The Palace Theater in downtown Maryville, and eventually, the two added Maria Williams on harmony vocals and bass and McCollough's Evergreen Street bandmate, Phil Pollard, on drums.

``We were kind of hoping the bigger sound might help us stand up to the noise in a bar,'' she said with a chuckle. ``But it started with just me and Sean. I thought he had just a deep love and understanding of folk music, and somebody said this about him -- and it made a lot of sense -- they said he's kind of a rock 'n' roller but he sort of channels it all into folk music. To me, that's very valuable in the folk music world.''

McCollough and Gunnoe were married about two years ago, she said, and The LoneTones began work on their debut album -- ``Useful,'' a collection of songs that's full of mirth, gentle energy and excellent musicianship -- about a year ago.

``We started a year ago, and we'd had a baby, so it seemed like a pipe dream at the time to make this record,'' said Gunnoe, whose stepchildren attend school in Alcoa. ``We were pretty deliberate that we wanted to try and keep it true to our sound. It's pretty tempting to make your vocals better and add a bunch of instruments, because Sean can play anything, but we tried to keep it toned down to keep from disappointing people live.''

Their success is self-evident, and anyone who listens will most certainly agree -- Gunnoe sounds much more at home singing and playing Americana than she would have been raging through a raucous set of girl-punk.


"The LoneTones specialize in a singular approach to Appalachian pop that's almost unimaginably sweet and certain to please even the most discerning fan of Americana, alt-country and old-time string ensembles. Soulful songwriting and elegant arrangements abound on the band's two full-lengths, especially 2006's "Nature Hatin' Blues," which at moments evokes the sense of an Appalachian Belle and Sebastian — only better. The band is composed of Steph Gunnoe on guitar and vocals, Sean McCollough on guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals, bass player Maria Williams, Steve Corrigan on drums and glockenspiel, and drummer emeritus Phil Pollard. This group is a true musical gem.